Butter Anything but Smooth and Creamy
- Shawn McEvoy Managing Editor, Crosswalk.com
- 2012 10 Oct
DVD Release Date: December 4, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: October 5 (limited)
Rating: R, for language, sexual content, and brief drug use
Run Time: 91 mins.
Director: Jim Field Smith
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Yara Shahidi, Olivia Wilde, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal
This comedy is "the story of greed, blackmail, sex, and butter," says Jennifer Garner's Laura Pickler in the opening voice-over for Butter.
But wait. Actually this film wants to say something about idolatry in Middle America, about how we give lip service to God but make gods of ourselves. Or so an early shot of a butter-carved cow (golden calf, anyone?) - the first butter sculpture we're treated to - would lead us to believe.
Hold up a second, though. Didn't that opening sequence showing Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) coming out on stage for an election rally strongly suggest that this is a political satire in which she's an obvious Sarah Palin voodoo doll?
Or maybe what we have is a drama about the ups-and-downs of the foster parenting and adoption processes, about finding talent and forgiveness in strange places. At least that's the part of the story where the most interesting characters live.
See the problem yet? I’m trying to imagine the person who would love consuming this melty mess. Ultimately, there's just not enough popcorn to soak up everything Butter wants to be. It's neither satirical enough, straight enough, comedic enough nor artistic enough, though it aims for all of the above. And that’s too bad because there are a few lines, characters, and moments that deserve a better film.
Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell, Morning Glory) has a talent for turning yellow dairy solids into things of beauty. For fifteen years, this has afforded him and his wife Laura (mostly Laura; Bob's more laid-back) a life of influence and fame in their corner of Iowa. When Bob is asked by the powers-that-be of butter carving to "step down and let someone else have a turn," he's too quick to acquiesce, causing Laura to go all Lady MacBeth on Bob. All-too-familiar with Laura's evil ways is Kaitlen (Ashley Greene, Twilight), Bob's teenage daughter from a previous relationship who takes to eye-rolling and making snappy comments like "cover your [groin], Dad."
We're also introduced to young Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a ward of the state who is shuffled from foster family to foster family without ever finding a fit (is she the only black person in Iowa?) until she's paired with the Emmets (Alicia Silverstone in her best work since 1995's Clueless, and the likeable Rob Corddry). Destiny once snuck into Bob's butter box at the State Fair and improved upon a grail at The Last Supper (read into that what you will), indicating an innate talent for butter carving. Who knew that was a thing?
Laura, meanwhile, despairing her potential loss of status, "luckily" happens upon Bob's tryst with stripper/prostitute Brooke (Olivia Wilde, Cowboys & Aliens), giving Laura the ammunition to enter the butter carving contest herself (with Bob's help, lest she rat him out to the town) in order to keep the Picklers front and center in the community.
The highlight of this movie is the butter sculptures themselves. Some of them are incredible. When four women square off for the right to replace Bob at the Iowa State Fair, what they come up with is both amazing and metaphorical. Even the last place finisher's laughable Basket of Kittens sculpture is, I dare say, ten times better than any of the rest of us could have done. The top three carvings would like us to get the message that Butter (the film as well as the medium) is about family, about freedom, and about (a vapid, simplistic) religion. And for the respective characters creating these carvings, that's spot-on.
When fierce competitors Laura and Destiny finally share a private moment in a women's restroom and Laura reveals the reason behind her witchiness, it turns out to be no secret at all, but just what one suspects of any mean-mouthed, buttoned-up maven of high society. It's at this point the orphan brings truth, forgiveness and hope to the bitter woman, which is what prompts Laura to run for political office. But would Destiny vote for her? Hardly. And the vehemence with which she tells us so runs completely counter to the tenderness she just showed Laura seconds ago.
That disconnect is just one of several headscratchers. Why was Bob asked to step down in the first place, when there wasn't anyone longing for his crown until after he stepped down? Even more unbelievable - why are the butter contest folks even listening to Laura's lying allegations that Destiny didn't carve her sculpture herself when the girl was locked in a glass case being watched by the public the whole time?
On the plus side, I rather liked Destiny’s adoptive parents. One scene in particular about overcoming our fears between Corddry and Shahidi is especially original and effective. I wanted to see more of that family's coming together. Alas, instead we get Hugh Jackman (Real Steel) in a throw-away role giving thanks to God for sending him a booty call, and a faux-conversion to Christianity from Brooke the hooker. And the whole storyline with the Picklers’ daughter? The girl serves one purpose to the plot and then her story is abandoned. One wonders if that was maybe the point.
This is a film with ideas and aspirations where none of them end up with any more permanence than a butter sculpture. Even 1999's poorly-reviewed Drop Dead Gorgeous was a more focused piece of upper-Midwest pagaentry. Had Butter committed to that film's mockumentary style, or any single form, it could have been better.
It's best to avoid Butter. "It's bad for you," rants one character during the film's climax. As the cautions below indicate, he's probably right.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Bob drinks at a strip club; daughter smokes pot alone in her room; one of Destiny's foster parents is a drug addict who uses her to score a prescription before being arrested.
- Language/Profanity: name of Jesus abused twice; at least seven f-words (plus two M-Fs); s--t; vulgar slang for female and male body parts; bi--h; a-s; one character uses a racial slur for whites.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: no nudity, but there might as well be. Brooke's costumes at the strip club and in public leave nothing to the imagination; three separate sex scenes where nothing is shown on-camera; one scene involves two women together, one of them underage; Kaitlen likes the fact that her father has a prostitute; Laura has withheld sex from Bob as a weapon; Laura unbuttons her top to seduce her dim-witted ex-boyfriend.
- Violence: Angry wife purposefully plows her SUV into the side of her husband's minivan; several threats made (mostly by Laura and Brooke).
- Religion/Spirituality: The God-fearing beliefs of this part of the American Midwest are both mocked and manipulated; some butter carvings feature religious art, such as a remake of The Last Supper that's hailed as "better than the original;" a character prays, calling God "really cool" and thanking him for sending a woman to have sex with him; a stripper dons a cross necklace and Sunday school dress and speaks to a crowd of her conversion to Christianity, which is fake; Laura attempts to motivate herself by listening to The Secret audiobook; the foster/adoption process is presented with both its negatives and positives; Destiny prays and forgives her mom for abandoning her; a mocking joke about where homeschoolers think dinosaur bones came from; daughter mocks her stepmom by asking if she has Jesus's direct line; Brooke yells at Bob, "I can't believe you're gonna let your wife come between us! I thought you had morals!"
Publication date: October 5, 2012