I think it’s fair to say that there’s a good, perhaps even great, movie hidden deep within Jim Field Smith’s Butter, one that’s raucously funny and has bite and direction and a sense of identity. It’s just as fair to say that the film Butter happens to be isn’t all that bad, either, but it also fails to be all that good. What it is is an 80 minute hodgepodge of social commentary directed squarely at America’s Midwest, a movie that pretends to be merciless but turns into a Frank Capra picture in the last act without doing all of the legwork necessary to earn its own sweetness. Butter has a message, but it’s riddled with either pat simplicity or spinelessness– you can take your pick.
The film unfolds against a backdrop of butter carving, specifically entrenching itself in the affairs of Bob and Laura Pickler (Ty Burrell and Jennifer Garner). He’s the reigning butter sculpture champion in his corner of Iowa; she’s his devoted, fervently supportive wife and a composite of right-wing female politicians ranging from Michele Bachmann to Sarah Palin. When Bob is persuaded to stop competing in butter carving for good, an outraged Laura immediately picks up his slack, determined to carry on with his legacy, but she has some serious opposition: the precocious and adorable Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an 11-year-old black orphan with an ace up her sleeve in the form of a preternatural talent for making art out of churned milk.
Butter sets the stage for these two to square off, and they do, but much too early– so they end up competing twice. The repetitive structure of Butter makes eighty minutes feel almost like a chore, though the material is so lightweight that an ill-conceived framework doesn’t really matter all that much in the long run. What hounds Butter in much more significant ways is the empty calorie writing exemplified in each character and every turn the plot takes; Smith is shooting for harsh satire and kinda hits the mark, but his critique lands in the nebulous zone between “harsh social satire” and “heartwarming ensemble comedy”. Put more simply: the thing is a muddled mess.
How does a film that embraces brevity so strongly end up feeling so aimless? Usually, critics call for footage to be cut from films, but in the case of Butter there’s a powerful need for around fifteen to twenty extra minutes of narrative just to get all of its elements to play. Is the film about a megalomaniacal middle-aged white woman making the maddest of bids to retain what she sees as power? Or is it about an unwanted and lonely child finding a place in the world where she feels she belongs? There’s no reason that Butter cannot reasonably be about both, but in attempting to parody the 2008 US Presidential election (yes, really) the film doesn’t say enough about either of its leads.
And that’s a crying shame, because all of the elements are there for both Laura and Destiny to feel like real, fully-fledged characters. Destiny doesn’t know who her mother is; she spends most of her young life being shuffled from one white foster couple to another before hitting it big and ending up with the Emmets (an excellent Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), apparently the two most modern, progressive, forward-thinking people in all of Iowa (at least, the Iowa Smith shows us). Laura, on the other hand, has little else in her life but Bob’s glory; he’s unfaithful to her, though I suspect we’re supposed to feel sorry for him since Laura’s made out to be such a lunatic, and her step-daughter (Ashely Greene) flat-out despises her.
The problem is that Butter only flirts with their emotional “stuff”, instead remaining content with resting on Shahidi’s earnest preciousness (and she is quite precious) and Garner’s manic and, admittedly, completely spot-on portrayal of bumpkin ignorance. They’re fantastic both together and apart; they’re just limited by the material Jason Micallef’s anemic script affords them. So while there’s promise, much of it is left unrealized, and when the film reaches its big scenes of emotional, character-based payoff, it falls flat. I want to be moved at Destiny’s decision to carve a statue of her mother holding her as a baby, and I want to feel like Laura truly earns her redemptive moment, but Destiny’s familial catharsis is sold short and Laura is characterized as too much of a tyrant for me to forgive her. At least she’s in good company between Burrell’s spineless, apathetic, unfaithful milquetoast husband and Hugh Jackman’s dumb as a brick car salesman and Laura’s former flame. (Also: Olivia Wilde as a lady of the night. She’s repugnant in her own way but shockingly, she’s less despicable than her male costars.) In the end, we really just want Destiny to end up winning the day and going home happily with the Emmets, and if you can’t guess the outcome based on past experience and her own moniker, well, then Butter might surprise you.
It’s unfortunate that all of the better merits to Smith’s film get drowned out by the unshakable sensation that what we see on screen essentially plays like a rough cut. Yes, Butter is made with plenty of polish, but there are just as many warts lying beneath that veneer. While this ultimately means that Butter is made well enough, there’s no getting around how undercooked everything here is. Butter would have benefited immensely from another dedicated half hour or so of churning and clarification, and while the results aren’t a total catastrophe, they don’t successfully cohere.