Every hometown has its obsession. Texans have football, North Carolinians have basketball, and in Iowa, they have their own source of cutthroat competition: butter.
Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) and his wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) are intense, if not slightly neurotic, when it comes to their local butter carving contests.
Laura’s even begun concocting plans to jump-start her husband’s political career.
He has a following after all: admirers of his amazing sculptures, most notably his master copies (if you can call butter that) of “Schlinder’s List” and “The Last Supper.” The latter is a particular crowd pleaser for the panel of conservative judges.
But just because the Picklers come to play in their Sunday’s best, doesn’t mean these competitions are any less merciless. When newcomer Destiny (Yara Shahidi) comes on the scene, Laura will do anything to keep the title — even if Destiny is a 10-year-old African-American foster child whose mother has just died from a drug overdose.
Seem over the top? Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be. The first half of the film takes full use of political and racial situational humor to build the audience up into an almost constant stream of laughter, particularly through Shahidi’s character. After all, a good “white people are weird” joke is always that much funnier when delivered by a 10-year-old.
And Shahidi’s timing is on the mark — she’s a standout even among such a seasoned cast. Whereas, the political angle’s covered by Garner, whose character can be seen as a satire of any of the popular female Republican candidates.
Which of course brings us to Act II: what’s a political satire without a good, old-fashioned sex scandal? Unfortunately, the Picklers aren’t as wholesome as they seem (shocking!) and sex in leather is delivered courtesy of Bob’s dirty little secret, stripper Brooke (Olivia Wilde).
All of the risqué humor on “House” must have prepared Wilde for this role, because she shines as the vengeful Brooke who stalks Bob down, even entering a butter competition herself in hopes of nabbing the $600 he owes her.
Brooke even shows up at the Pickler’s house, but Laura’s already in the know. The door closes and the camera cuts to a scene of Bob holding an ice pack over his crotch while sitting on the couch — which doesn’t seem at all unfamiliar for him.
Yet, while it’s funny, it’s hard to feel sorry for Laura, because she’s always so heartless and so bitter, particularly when she realizes Destiny has a real chance to win. She never becomes more than a caricature of a Michele Bachmann-esque stereotype.
Sure, the film is about butter — how deep can one expect to get? — but even Garner’s delivery feels unnatural, especially when we’ve seen such seamless acting from her in “Juno,” a performance rich in nonverbal subtleties. A good character can say one thing and mean another, but here all dimensionality is lost.
But it’s a comedy. Fair enough. That might be how the writers also get away with Destiny’s near perfection: a 10-year-old who forgives her mother for abandoning her the same night she learns of her existence. Fine. The movie can be unrealistic but still funny — but it’s funny to what end?
The attempt at making Laura human in the last scenes with a sobbing confession, “These competitions are all I have,” fails to resonate due to a two-dimensional performance. So what are we left with? Nothing more than two hours of jabs at the double standards of right wingers.
It’s only in the end, when the audience is left wondering why, that the movie loses its momentum. The comedy is spot on, but satire ought to aspire to say something. And when it comes down to it, “Butter” isn’t up for the challenge.Contact Susan Kemp.