Susan Granger’s review of “Butter” (The Weinstein Company)
On the midway at the Iowa State Fair, few exhibits attract as much attention as the butter sculpture. And – for the past 15 years – the undisputed champion carver has been Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), churning out campy, epic-scale tableaux, including Schindler’s List, The Last Supper, and Newt Gingrich on horseback. But now the judges have asked him to retire his trowel and make way for a new artist.
His prim, prissy, ambitious wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), is furious. Refusing to give up the limelight, she declares her intention to compete. So does a sweet-natured, 10 year-old African-American orphan, Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who was dazzled after watching the prestigious Picklers on television and whose unusual talent is encouraged by her supportive foster parents (Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry). Meanwhile, Bob’s rebellious teenage daughter, Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), is befriended by brassy, bawdy Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a gold-digging stripper who is determined to take monetary advantage of Bob’s clandestine visit to the club where she pole-dances.
Superficially scripted by Jason A. Micallef and unevenly helmed by British sitcom director Jim Field Smith, it’s a quirky, off-beat, socio-political satire that’s sat on the shelf so long that the obvious allusions to prominent female Republicans like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann vs. Michelle/Barack Obama have gone stale. Nevertheless, the amusing, farcical elements remain relevant, skewering small-town politics, sanitized hypocrisy, the foster-care system and Midwestern Tea-Party conservatism – suggesting comparison with Christopher Guest’s eccentrically stylized comedies.
Evoking his doofus-dad on TV’s “Modern Family,” Ty Burrell is even more easygoing and gutless, while usually genial Jennifer Garner plays against type, oozing self-importance and a ruthless calculation that’s as cold as her temperature-controlled carving booth. Hunky Hugh Jackman seems miscast and almost unrecognizable as Boyd Bolton, Laura’s high-school boyfriend who has become a smarmy car salesman, but Kristen Schaal and Phyllis Smith score in cameos.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Butter” is a sassy yet undeniably strange 6, spreading subversive, thinly sliced Americana.