Busting guts and genres
By Sean O’Connell
Friday, October 5, 2012
After more than 35 years spent watching movies and 15 years reviewing them, I assumed I’d seen everything at least once. Then, “Butter” blindsided me with an outrageously offensive (yet undeniably funny) culinary sculpture of the John F. Kennedy assassination, verifying that we’re still just scratching the surface of witty, provocative humor as long as envelope-pushing directors such as Jim Field Smith continue to find work.
Even more surprising? The dairy re- creation of the Dealey Plaza tragedy fits right into the demented comedic currents rumbling through Smith’s social satire, set in Iowa’s competitive butter-sculpting community. And because the artist responsible for the JFK homage fancies herself as the Jackie O. of Des Moines, the butter judges to which she panders hardly bat an eye.
Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) is the vindictive trophy wife to Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell), a 15-time carving champion who’s described in social circles as “the Elvis of butter.” Like most power mongers, Laura views Bob’s sculptural successes as the next step toward heftier rewards. She envisions the Picklers in the governor’s mansion one day, and possibly the White House shortly after that. But Bob is content to frequent the local strip club, where he makes empty promises to the seedy venue’s trashy starlet, Brooke (Olivia Wilde).
Several narrative wind gusts threaten to knock Laura from her pretentious perch. First, Bob’s informed that after years of dominating the state competition in Iowa’s annual tournament, he’s being pushed into retirement. Laura decides to compete in his place, unwilling to part with the faux prestige afforded her family by the influential butter-carving victories. Instead of smooth sailing to the winner’s circle, though, Laura faces stiff competition from an envious neighbor (Kristen Schaal), the greedy Brooke and an innocent orphan named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), whose God-given ability with a sculpting knife makes her the Lorenzo Bartolini of fermented cream.
You might have heard about “Butter” before. Smith’s refined satire toured the festival circuit last fall, screening at the Telluride, Toronto, Chicago and AFI film fests before securing its current limited theatrical release.
Sitting on the studio shelf, though, hasn’t spoiled “Butter’s” stinging humor. The jokes stay fresh by aiming at universal targets. And Garner sparkles as the proverbial “plunger” that keeps Smith’s production churning. Few of Garner’s movie projects have figured out how to use the dry wit and precise comedic timing she hides behind her statuesque beauty. Here, her prim and proper posture adequately distracts us from Laura’s venomous personality. She pairs Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vicious political determination with Sarah Palin’s rural ordinariness -- a lethal combination. In fact, Smith shrouds all of “Butter” with an aw-shucks, Midwestern naivete that barely masks the below-the-surface hostility that gives this comedy its edge.
The entire cast, though, embraces Jason A. Micallef’s nasty script, which rattles off harsh criticisms of small-town corruption and gluttony and the self-delusion that often accompanies an ounce of popularity. Most of these digs were better realized in Christopher Guest’s complete catalogue or Alexander Payne’s early films (notably the biting “Election”). But with Garner’s triumphant turn as a buttoned-down manipulator and Smith’s broad, scatological punch lines, “Butter” often proves it’s sharp enough to . . . okay, I’ll say it, to slice through butter.
Contains language and sexual content.