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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Editor’s Note: A few months back, I wrote about Butter for our regular feature What Went Wrong? — Feel free to check it out!
Butter is the story of a small-town woman (Jennifer Garner) with big ambitions and right-of-center political leanings who takes on a young African-American orphan girl in a state butter sculpting contest. The story is supposed to be somewhat derived from the 2008 vice-presidential campaign, but if I hadn’t know that going in, I probably never would have picked up on it. Also, it was apparently considered one of the hottest unproduced screenplays in Hollywood for quite some time, but again I would have had no clue about that had I not researched Butter for the aforementioned column. Anyway, on one boring Saturday night, I fired up Butter to watch with my girlfriend. Unfortunately, it ended up being just as bad as I suspected it would.
The problems with Butter are plenty. Let’s start with the main characters, of which there are far too many for a 90-minute film. There’s Laura (Garner) and Bob (Ty Burrell, essentially playing his character Phil from Modern Family) Pickler and their daughter, Kaitlyn (Ashley Greene, who seriously needs more work). There’s Jill and Ethan Emmett (a very welcomed Alicia Silverstone and a funny Rob Corddry) as the adoptive parents of Destiny (Yara Shahidi), the young girl who challenges Laura in the competition. Additionally there is also car salesman Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman, in a thankless and unfunny role), Brooke the Iowan stripper (Olivia Wilde, in a completely over-the-top role), and aspiring butter-sculptor and cat-owning cliché Carol-Ann Stevenson (Kristen Schaal, a talented comedienne who deserves better than Butter). The film also features The Office’s Phyllis Smith in an extended performance as well. Simply put, there are far too many characters to fit tightly into a 90-minute movie about butter-sculpting. What we’re left with is far too little actual butter-sculpting. Indeed, only two or three scenes in the movie (all done mini-montage style) actually feature any butter-sculpting at all!
The humor in Butter is also something to behold, but not because it’s any good. Butter is the type of movie that is far too impressed with itself, so when it has a young African-American girl refer to white people as “crackers,” we’re supposed to laugh uproariously because this ten year old is just so cute and self-aware, and boy aren’t the kindly white people who adopted her just so darn lame? The humor in this film continually reaches for the controversial angle, and aspects of Butter seem so tailor-made to receive media attention that they just come off as forced and stilted. Olivia Wilde’s character is a testament to this. She plays Brooke, a struggling stripper who falls head over heels for Burrell’s Bob. Her over-the-top actions lead her to doing naughty things like smoking indoors, entering a butter-sculpting competition she has no reasonable chance of winning, converting to Christianity just to win people over, and swearing in front of little kids. It’s the type of performance that gossip rags who peddle their wares to bored housewives could write an expose on, and one that the studio could potentially lobby for an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination if it had been well-received. One other unbelievable character action include Greene’s character Kaitlin (Garner and Burrell’s daughter) falling in love with Wilde’s stripper in what is assuredly the movie’s most well-thought-out plot deviation.
The biggest “controversial” aspect of Butter, however, has to be in its supposed parallels with the 2008 vice-presidential campaign. Readers are probably aware of this campaign, which pitted Delaware political mainstay and favored son candidate Joe Biden versus Alaska housewife-turned-governor Sarah Palin. Palin has remained in the public eye due to her various political scandals, reality TV shows, and stints as a Fox News correspondent, but has seemingly largely shied away from ever running for office again (probably because she knows she can’t win – her fan-base is vocal but tiny). It did seem at one point around mid-2008 or so that the public was fascinated by Palin, but whatever mystique or gravitas she once possessed, she is now highly unlikely to ever hold any real political power ever again. What this essentially means is that Garner’s portrayal of a Palin-like character is almost laughably quaint now. Whereas Butter may have had a slim chance of being relevant in maybe early 2009, the film is so out of date now that the joke is incredibly stale. Garner is a talented actress, but she can’t turn what could have been considered good material four years ago into a tour de force performance now. It would be the same if she were acting in a movie about swine flu or the balloon boy. Garner’s good acting just can’t make up for the poor, out-of-date script.
In the end I can’t help but feel that Butter, as a movie, was posited as an answer to a question no one asked or cared about anymore. Whether it’s clearly Hugh Jackman’s body double in one scene because they obviously couldn’t afford him for an additional scene, or the tacked-on heartfelt ending, or the continued nadir of Alicia Silverstone’s career (she seriously deserves better than this…someone get her a TV show on FX or Showtime or something … dammit if Claire Danes can do it so can Silverstone), or the complete dropping of several plot threads (including the aforementioned lesbian love affair), Butter is just not a very good movie, and certainly cannot overcome its shortcomings in the script. It doesn’t even succeed in being entertaining as camp either, because the film either takes itself too seriously (Garner’s role and story arc) or too lightly (Wilde’s odd portrayal of a stripper and subsequent romance with Greene) to fall into that category. It strives to be something like Election, but Garner’s Laura Pickler is no match for Reese Witherspoon’s iconic Tracy Flick, and Jim Field Smith (the director of Butter) is certainly no Alexander Payne. This Butter should not be passed – avoid at all costs.