Saturday 8 September 2018

Movie Review: Butter (2011)

A political satire, Butter delivers some laughs in a compact package.

In rural Johnson County, Iowa, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is the reigning champion of the annual butter sculpting competition, a title he has won for 15 consecutive years. His ambitious wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) takes enormous pride in this achievement. When Bob meekly agrees to step aside and allow others a chance to win, Laura is furious, and decides to enter the competition herself.

Ten-year-old black child Destiny (Yara Shahidi) is finally placed in a stable home with loving foster parents Ethan (Rob Corddry) and Jill Emmet (Alicia Silverstone). She discovers a hidden talent for butter sculpting, and enters the competition as Laura's only serious competition. Meanwhile, a despondent Bob enjoys the services of stripper/hooker Brooke (Olivia Wilde), but they are interrupted before Brooke is paid. She sets out to get what is rightfully hers, resulting in an unusual relationship with Laura and Bob's daughter Kaitlin (Ashley Greene).

A satire directed by Jim Field Smith, Butter may or may not be a reimagining of the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, where an upstart black candidate rose from nowhere to challenge a high-strung entitled woman. Butter also may or may not be more broadly about the obsessive battle between haves and haves-nots for supremacy over something that does not matter very much.

Either way, this is an entertaining little film, clocking in at 90 minutes, poking away at the cultural divide in the United States. Laura and Bob represent tradition and the elite, and their art work recreates moments of religion and culture (The Last Supper, the Kennedy assassination) that matter to the old definition of the middle class. Destiny, now nurtured by a liberal white family, is much more instinctive and visceral, her sculptures speaking to the black experience and the suffering of the disadvantaged.

The irony of Laura, who has everything, feeling threatened to her core by Destiny, who has nothing, is an apt reflection of the politics of fear.

The script by Jason Micallef throws enough wacky moments and characters at the screen to diffuse any singular focus, and the sub-story involving Brooke (a sex partner for the straying husband of the candidate sounds familiar) and Kaitlin is irreverent enough to just about work.

Jennifer Garner (who co-produced) plays the highly strung Laura with full naked ambition and no irony whatsoever, a woman blinded by a love of power, willing to do anything to retain her status, and utterly oblivious to her privilege. Olivia Wilde powers through the film like a buzzsaw, the fantasy smart and resourceful prostitute more than willing to jump over the tracks to be acknowledged for her services to society. Hugh Jackman has a small role as Laura's old flame, a man she summarily uses to keep her campaign on track.

By pretending that a small town butter sculpting competition actually matters, Butter never takes itself seriously. At the end of the day, it all melts away for another year.

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