With the Iowa primary just ending, I was reminded of the movie “Butter” which I saw at the Napa Valley Film Festival in mid-November. “Butter” zooms in on the butter-carving contest made famous at the annual Iowa State fair. Butter sculpting is a very popular and competitive art in places like Iowa (with butter statues of Elvis Presley, Tiger Woods, The Last Supper, Superman, and Harry Potter), and the movie contains some really amazing butter statues including Newt Gingrich. “Butter” will be released on March 16.
“Butter” opens as a quirky political satire with Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background of red, white, and blue balloons. Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner playing against type), the wife of Iowa’s reigning butter-carving champion, is a stickler for her husband’s long run as the annual winner. She has delusions of his butter-carving skills turning into more heavyweight ambitions: the White House. Bob is asked to step down so that someone else can have a chance at the title, and he graciously agrees. Laura, however, is incensed and decides to compete herself. Bob reacts by taking solace in a strip club with Brooke (Olivia Wilde in a hilarious turn).
Then a child enters the contest. Destiny (the enchanting Yara Shahidi), is a fresh-faced, charming little girl who enters a contest in which there has always been only one winner and never any African American contestants in a community with no African American residents. A 10-year-old foster child who’s adopted by a middle-class white couple, Destiny discovers that she likes to carve sculptures in butter too. Realizing that Destiny will be a formidable opponent, Laura ruthlessly plots with her high school sweetheart, Boyd (Hugh Jackman), to battle against Destiny. Garner is hilarious, channeling her inner Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman, with prim and proper dresses and pearls.
There is some sharp and funny satirical dialogue but there are also depressing, cheap shots disguised as jokes uttered by Destiny. This tastelessness irritated me. This child actress is so much better than some of the inferior material. Still, her dialogue with her foster father (Rob Corddry), sitting in the car, discussing her application to compete is worth the price of a ticket. His graceful chemistry with Destiny is warm, gentle, and kind but in a subtle, not mawkish way. Laughs come naturally in the midst of his tenderness as a neophyte father.
There are just enough solid performances and good jokes to keep Butter from being a bad movie, or one where you are embarrassed laughing at dumb jokes. (Don’t miss the outtakes for some hilarious zingers!) “Butter’s” strength lies completely in its lead actresses (Jennifer Garner and Yara Shahidi) and its offbeat back-story of small-town America. It is sometimes raunchy and often over the top, sometimes cliched and going for a cheap laugh. Overall, the laughs are enough to keep its audience satisfied. Most of all, “Butter” is a story about what it means to win at all costs and against all odds, and what self-deception can do to a person who thinks she is winning when she is losing everything. That can be a very funny, not to mention poignant, story!