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Butter Anything but Smooth and Creamy

  • Shawn McEvoy Managing Editor,
  • 2012 5 Oct
<i>Butter</i> Anything but Smooth and Creamy

How do you make butter carving in Iowa interesting? You make it about at least four other things, but there's not enough popcorn to soak up all that Butter wants to be. It's hard to imagine the person who would love consuming this melty mess. 1.5 out of 5.


Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) has a talent for turning yellow dairy solids into things of beauty. For 15 years, this has afforded him and his wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) a life of influence and fame in their corner of Iowa. When Bob is asked by the powers-that-be of state fair butter carving to "step down and let someone else have a turn," he's too quick to acquiesce, prompting Laura to bring out the big guns to keep the Picklers in the spotlight. All-too-familiar with Laura's evil ways is Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), Bob's eye-rolling teenage daughter from a previous relationship, who is also aware - and likes the fact that - her father sees a hooker named Brooke (Olivia Wilde) on the side. Laura, despairing her potential loss of status, "luckily" happens upon Bob's tryst with Brooke, giving Laura the ammunition to force her husand to coach so she can enter the butter carving contest herself.

This comedy, says Laura in the opening, is "the story of greed, blackmail, sex, and butter." Okay, fine, except we just saw images of your character at an election rally, strongly suggesting a political satire. Followed by butter carvings that seem to want to say something about faith in middle America. And then there's a drama here about the ups-and-downs of the foster parenting and adoption processes, about finding talent and forgiveness in strange places. See the problem? Butter is 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. For example, we're introduced to 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 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, indicating an innate talent for butter carving. Who knew that was a thing?

What Works?

The highlight of the 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 you or I could have done. I also 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.

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What Doesn't?

Butter is a film with ideas and aspirations where none of them end up with any more permanence than one of Bob's sculptures. 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. Instead, we get a doltish Hugh Jackman in a throw-away role giving thanks to God for sending him a booty call. There are also 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? 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? By the time 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.

Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes

The first butter sculpture we're treated to is essentially a "golden calf" (a cow made out of butter). This film definitely hopes to say something about idolatry in Middle America, about how we give lip service to God while making gods of our own, but it loses its way in an effort to say too much. To wit: some butter carvings feature religious art, such as a remake of The Last Supper that's hailed as "better than the original;" a daughter mocks her stepmom by asking if she has Jesus's direct line; a woman dons a cross necklace and Sunday school dress and, to gain sympathy, speaks to a crowd of her conversion to Christianity, which is fake. There's also a mocking joke about where homeschoolers think dinosaur bones came from. The foster/adoption process is presented with both its negatives and positives, and Destiny prays and forgives her mom for abandoning her, but by this time any valuable spiritual takeaways from Butter are lost in the mire.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content, and brief drug use)
  • 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 verbal threats made.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: Bob drinks at a strip club; his 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.

The Bottom Line

RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of butter sculptures, those who want to see Garner channel Sarah Palin unflaterringly, and, possibly, those involved in fostering or adoption, as there aren't a ton of movies about those subjects.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Just about everyone else will find that it's best to avoid Butter. "It's bad for you," rants one character during the film's climax. As the cautions above indicate, he's probably right.

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Butter, directed by Jim Field Smith, comes to theaters October 5, 2012; available for home viewing December 4, 2012. It runs 91 minutes and stars Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Yara Shahidi, Olivia Wilde, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Hugh Jackman and Kristen Schaal. Watch the trailer for Butter here.

Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for and the co-host of's Video Movie Reviews. You can find out more about's philosophy of movie reviews from a Chrsitian perspective here.

Publication date: October 5, 2012

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