Cuts like a knife through, well, you know


on September 16, 2011 by Pete Hammond

Like small town satirical classics such as Election, which dealt with a cutthroat high school political campaign and 1975's beauty pageant comedy Smile, the hilarious and whip smart Butter chronicles a vicious butter carving competition in Iowa where the once-and-future favorite gets some unexpected competition in a fight for the much prized title. With a razor-sharp script and Jennifer Garner winning laughs in a nice change-of-pace role, this cynically funny and pointedly pertinent not-so-subtle spin on the national battle between right and left wing politics scores lots of comic bullseyes. With the right marketing hook, box office could be smooth as buttah.

For 15 years, Bob Pickler (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) has ruled the Iowa State Fair's butter carving competition. But when a hand injury forces him to retire, his wife Laura (Garner), a Michelle Bachman-eqsue purse-lipped conservative wife and mother, is determined to keep the family's dignity and winning streak intact by taking over for Bob and (ideally) becoming the only contestant to dare sign up. Only those plans are thwarted when a 10-year-old African American child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) throws her hat in the ring, a bold move that leads to even more unexpected competition when Bob's maybe-mistress, a stripper named Brooke (Olivia Wilde) decides to shake things up-literally-by entering the butter-off as well. Throw in Bob's demure and extremely untalented #1 fan Carol-Ann (Kristen Schaal) and we have ourselves a contest. Things quickly turn wicked as it becomes clear Laura, already ticked off by Bob's transgressions and her stepdaughter Kaitlen's (Ashley Green) insults, is going to conspire to cheat her way to the top, even enlisting doofus former boyfriend Boyd (Hugh Jackman) to help her out. Things get really complicated when Destiny proves a more formidable opponent than anyone ever imagined.

Of course all of this is just fodder for writer Jason Micallef and British director Jim Field Smith's larger designs on using these massive butter carvings as their way in to create a coy commentary on today's polarized political environment. It's an inspired setting for satire and Garner gets the joke, going all out with her take-no-prisoners wife who demands revenge and glory at any cost. Playing it all with a straight face (literally), she gets a deserves a chance to shine after playing the heavy in the comedy Juno. As her young nemesis in the margarine sweepstakes, Shadhidi is a delight, craftily underplaying her mix of sweet innocence with the competitive drive of a lion. Burrell isn't doing much more here than he does on Modern Family, but he's a great counterpoint to the creepy uptightness of Garner's Laura. There's brief but nice work from Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry as Destiny's well-meaning foster parents, but Jackman is a bit over the top and labored in his surprise supporting turn. But its Wilde and her deft comic timing that steals her every scene lock, stock and dairy.

Worth the price of admission are the butter carvings themselves, some of them real works of art while others-say a recreation of the Kennedy Assassination-border on bad taste. But those choices are what set ballsy satires apart from the pretenders, and this one is a wild, weird winner.

Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cast: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Hugh Jackman, Ashley Green, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone, Kristen Schaal, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi
Director: Jim Field Smith
Screenwriter: Jason Micallef
Producers: Michael De Luca, Jennifer Garner, Alissa Phillips
Genre: Comedy
Rating: R
Running Time: 90 min.
Release Date: October 28, 2011 (Ltd one week Oscar qualifying run); Wide 2012

Tags: Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Hugh Jackman, Ashley Greene, Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone, Kristen Schaal, Olivia Wilde, Yara Shahidi, Jim Field Smith

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