Jennifer Garner memorializes November 22, 1963 in Butter
Welcome to the exciting world of competitive butter carving. Yes, this is an actual thing and apparently has been at least since the 1911 Iowa State Fair. Reigning supreme over this world is Bob Pickler (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) the undisputed king of butter carving for 15 years running. Bob is content with his place in the universe, but his upright and uptight wife Laura (Jennifer Garner, Alias) has big, Lady Macbethian plans to parlay Bob’s innate butter carving talents into perhaps one day a run at the highest office in the land. When the local butter carving committee convinces Bob that maybe it’s time he stepped aside and let someone else have a chance at glory, however, Laura is devastated. Faced with losing the one thing in life that made her special and having all her future dreams dashed, she decides to enter the competition herself. Things are looking up for Laura’s chances until her number one challenger turns out to be an adorable black foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi). All other things being equal, can Laura hope to compete with Destiny’s moving back story?
With a lot of other funny ins and outs, that’s Butter in a nutshell. It’s a topic ripe for a snotty, snark-filled takedown of red state lifestyles and at first that seems like exactly what it’s going to be. Had that been the case, I’m afraid it wouldn’t have been a very good movie. Don’t get me wrong. I find state fair culture with its deep fried Snickers bars and food on sticks and general Christian wholesomeness to be more than a little creepy, but a whole smug movie just taking shots at an entire range of American humanity would ultimately just be depressing. Luckily, Butter is much better than that. It’s a satire, yes, but it’s a satire with a big-hearted affection for each one of its characters, no matter how silly they may seem at times. It’s that basic sweetness that raises Butter above the level of one-note coastal urban snobbery.
Ty Burrell is in his wheelhouse as the affable and slightly dopey Bob, a character not too far from the one he plays on TV. Jennifer Garner is also good as the prickly Laura. Her role is probably the most difficult because she has to be the butt of jokes for most of the movie, but then has to soften just enough to make her sympathetic without totally betraying everything her character is and stands for. It’s a delicate balancing act that Garner pulls off gracefully.
Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, TV’s House) meanwhile is very funny as a foul-mouthed stripper with a heart of something less than gold on a mission to take Laura down. Hugh Jackman is also a nice comic surprise as Boyd Bolton, a doofus car salesman who was Laura’s boyfriend back in high school and who still carries a torch for her (actually literally at one point in the movie, but that’s a spoiler). My favorite part though was Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine, TV’s The Daily Show) as Destiny’s foster father, Ethan. Often a manic, unpredictable, edgy presence, Corddry at first seems wholly unsuited to raising a 10-year-old girl and that’s where a lot of the humor comes from. He dials the edge way back however and his natural boyishness comes through. It’s both charming and funny to see him relating to Destiny on her level and it’s the first sign that Butter has a little more on its mind than it at first appears.
If there’s a problem with Butter in the end, it might be that it was ultimately a little too gentle. I could’ve used maybe a bit more sharp-edged satire, but I’m probably just wanting to have my cake and eat it too. In this case, being overly nice is preferable being too harsh on balance. Consistently funny, Butter is definitely a comedy, but the satire is more of an amusing backdrop to a much warmer story about a group of wildly different people, each trying to find the things they’re best at and doing them as well as they can. With a deft mixture of humor and heart, an honest sympathy for each one of its characters, and some terrific comic performances, Butter simply works.
Filed under: Review