A political satire set in the competitive world of butter-carving at the Iowa State Fair, the script for "Butter" was so ballyhooed and praised that it wound up on The Black List, the annual underground buzz list of unproduced screenplays based on a straw poll of agents, development executives and insiders. (As a side note, we must say that The Black List is only interesting as a barometer of quality insofar as you trust agents, development executives and insiders to be able to tell good from bad, which much of Hollywood's output suggests is not actually the case.)
Jennifer Garner is an ambitious, cold, harridan married to Ty Burrell's 15-time butter-carving champion -- a noteworthy achievement anywhere, but especially in Iowa. As Garner notes in voice-over: "More people see the Iowa State Fair butter carving winner than do the Super Bowl -- but you wouldn't know that from the Liberal media, not with its bias."
For those of you who like your political allegories obvious, Garner's character is presented as a power-hungry Conservative, with the long flowing hair and the short rigid ideas of someone like Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann. She intends to enter the butter-carving competition in Burrell's stead, seizing glory and building a family dynasty of butter-carving victory. There are two impediments to this plan, though. One is Burrell's wandering eye, which brings him afoul of exotic dancer Olivia Wilde -- who promptly sets out to extort, humiliate and shatter Garner and Burrell's marriage, even seducing their daughter, Ashley Greene.
The second, more innocent complication comes in the form of Destiny (Yara Shahedi). Destiny is being bounced between foster families -- the implication suggesting that being African-American in the lily-white wilds of Iowa is bad enough -- but she's finally found a place that makes her happy, with Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone. And she's a natural at butter carving. So natural that Garner can't have it.
With both Garner and Shahedi providing voice-over, the small-town stakes and the big thematic ideas, "Butter" feels like someone trying to create the lemonade tang and quenching zest of, say, Alexander Payne's "Election." It's too bad director Jim Field-Smith and writer Jason A. Micallef essentially add four excess cups of sugar to the pitcher of their movie, drowning any tartness and bite in syrupy sentiment. Garner's character is so irredeemable (until the film's de rigueur third-act moment of redemption) and Shahedi's character so immediately likable that of course we side with Shahedi, despite her penchant for saying things no 11-year-old would say, like "Can you believe these crackers?" and "White people are weirdos" and using "Ninjas" in the place of that other, more attention-getting N-word.
It's a shame, because Garner is so fully committed, Corddry so warm and Shahedi so winning that you wish they were in a better movie; the production design, props and costuming are tops, too. And Wilde and Burrell make what they can of under-written parts. It's not just that the film's butter-carving team recreates one of the 20th century's saddest moments in butter; it's that it's matched in the competition's finale by another butter carving that, against all logic and sense, is somehow emotionally moving.
We don't know the exact etymology of the word "satire"-- something to do with satyrs, we'd guess? -- but we do know that the word is not Latin for "something with a happy ending that includes a hug." "Butter" tries so hard to bring its characters together -- and give each of them what they want -- that it has to give up jabbing with its fists to hug with open arms. We, for one, wanted the film to stay cold and hard -- the application of artificial warmth makes it a bit gooey and shapeless, and its potential edge turned into a blunt lump.
Director Smith previously made the Jay Baruchel rom-com "She's Out of My League," another imperfect film with a good idea and plenty of charm behind it; at some point, through, you hope Smith stops making movies that are better than you might have feared and start making movies that are better than you might have hoped. "Butter" may have had plenty of buzz when it was a hypothetical possible smash, but what wound up on screen suggests that buzzing will wind up turning into the scattered sound of a few laughs and some half-uttered, half-hearted praise as the audience leaves the theater. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival.