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Butter | Review

An over-churned satire.

A sublime example of uneven tone, characterization, and sensibility, the sophomore feature from Jim Field Smith, Butter, frustratingly sports a blue ribbon winning idea that unfortunately piddles all over itself right out of the gate. Sporting an impressive supporting cast, this high glossed satire of Middle America has charming and hilarious moments but suffers considerably from a labored, schizophrenic attempt to be politically correct and daring satire at the same time.

Jennifer Garner stars as Laura Pickler, the trophy wife shrew of Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), the winner of an annual butter carving contest in a small Iowan town for 15 years running. When the butter carving judging committee asks Bob to step down after his lavish butter carving of Christ’s Last Supper in order to give others a chance at winning (previous wins were for his sculptures of “Schindler’s List” and the “Passion of the Christ“, with Neil Diamond as Christ), Laura Pickler takes it upon herself to enter the contest so that the title may not slip into another family’s hands.

Meanwhile, a small black foster child (Yara Shahidi, Imagine That, 2009) is being bounced around between white families gets placed with a loving couple (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry) that support her wish to enter the annual butter carving contest. Additionally, a stripper/prostitute (Olivia Wilde) that slept with Bob Pickler, and demands payment for her services, enters the contest to ruin Laura Pickler’s chances of winning. And of course, when the predictably conventional outcome of the butter carving contest is announced, scandal erupts around the butter carving contest.

While it’s readily apparent that screenwriter Jason Micallef has a competent understanding of writing a successful amusing scenario, his comedic dialogue comes across as contrived and grating, and not all the pieces seem to jive together. While Olivia Wilde elicits a few laughs for her clownish role as a sex slut bitch in killer heels, her character’s hatred for Garner and continual presence in the film is nonsensical and reveals the script to be the work of a novice. She’s used shamelessly for broad laughs and then used ridiculously to further conflict. But what Butter suffers most exquisitely from is a rancid, center stage performance from Jennifer Garner. Having no sense of comedic timing, she plays her character like a cartoon hellion on hyperdrive. Every moment, every line from Garner’s mouth is a painful artifice of caricature that could have been played to the hilt by an actress with even a modicum of comedic talent. Garner kills this film dead in its tracks, her domineering presence mauling every scene she’s in. What the film does have going for it is a genuinely cute performance from its much younger lead, Yara Shahidi. While her storyline is saccharine sweet and predictable as all hell, her dialogue (for the most part) and screen presence doesn’t ring as false as most of what’s going on around her.

Butter is at its worst trying to harpoon Middle American, white, Christian ideals, mostly because rather than viciously call out the hypocritical bullshit these ideals really are, Butter is more of a kitty swipe of sociopolitical commentary, showing us a monstrous white Christian lady angrily asking to be forgiven for being tall, white, and pretty, and not sitting in front of a TV set all day long soiling herself, yet resolving her racism tidily and succinctly with, of all things, a hug. And to boot we get a closeted lesbian stepdaughter (Ashley Greene) who moons ridiculously over Olivia Wilde. If Alexander Payne’s films were remade by Garry Marshall, the result might look something like this effort from Jim Field Smith. Much like the ginger handling of racism in the much loved film The Help from earlier this year, Butter backs away from being realistic in its convictions. What results is a half assed mess that sounds a hell of a lot better and stranger on paper than it presents itself to be on celluloid.

Reviewed on November 06 at the 2011 AFI Film Festival – Special Presentations Programme.

Runtime: 90 Min.

Rating 2.5 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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