“Butter” was shot several years ago, but the film’s distributors waited until this election season to release it. It was a seemingly shrewd choice – the film, which portrays a fierce competition among candidates for the Iowa state butter-carving championship, functions as a political allegory, complete with sex scandals, race baiting, and dirty tricks. But at a time when many Americans are feeling fed up with partisan politics, the film is far too cynical to resonate. It may see itself as a political satire in the style of “Election,” Alexander Payne’s affectionately dark comedy about a high school campaign. But that’s a high bar to meet, and “Butter” doesn’t come close. Instead, it comes off as the kind of movie that conservatives point to when they talk about the liberal Hollywood elite, as it is marked primarily by its complete and total condescension towards Middle Americans and the things they care about.
We first meet Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) at a dinner celebrating her husband, Bob, 15-year Iowa state butter-carving champion. When Bob (Ty Burrell) is asked to step down from competition to let others have a chance, Laura fumes and cries conspiracy. Refusing to let another family hold the crown and the local fame that goes with it, she enters the contest herself. The filmmakers portray Laura as a corrupt politician, and in case the allegory was not clear, they tell us: her ultimate goal is to parlay her family’s success into a stint at the Governor’s mansion, or possibly even the White House.
She seems assured of victory until Destiny, a gifted black child (adopted by liberal parents played by Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) decides to enter the contest, as well. With the wife of a beloved retired leader and a young black upstart with no experience fighting for votes in Iowa, the allusions to the 2008 Democratic Iowa caucus are unmistakable. It is a clever enough comparison to make you pay attention, but unfortunately, that’s as far as the allegory goes: also entering the contest is a sycophantic friend of Laura’s (Kristen Schaal) and a stripper-slash-prostitute (Olivia Wilde) who is having an affair with Bob. From there the film loses its grip on its central metaphor, and “Butter” becomes less of an allegory and more like a bad political cartoon.
But the broad manner in which these characters are defined is not the film’s central problem – it’s how strikingly unsympathetic its lead character is. As the contest drones on, Laura feels increasingly threatened by the talented little black child that everyone loves and resorts to a series of despicable dirty tricks to win the crown. It’s not surprising that “Butter” seeks to align the audience with such a vile, bitter person – the British filmmakers see rural Iowa, i.e. America, as a dark, twisted place filled with dysfunctional people. Brooke the stripper tells of being raped by her father and later seduces Laura’s teenaged step-daughter. Destiny’s prior foster parents are depicted as drug-addicted and abusive. And of course, Laura is portrayed as the worst thing of all – a Republican. She rails against the “liberal media” and is generally depicted as a hellish combination of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, spurred on to run for office by a conversation with God.
Political satire is tricky business. If you do it wrong, you come off bitter and condescending. These films only work when the filmmakers are truly willing to mock everyone. But here, they mostly lay off of Destiny’s foster parents, who pass judgment on the competition itself (Silverstone’s character calls it “rednecky”) and those who take it seriously (although I was particularly amused by Rob Corddry’s rant at the butter-carving council: “It clogs your arteries, it makes you fat, and you’re all probably gonna die from it!”). It seems clear that these characters, who feel out of place among the gallery of trashy rednecks that fill out the rest of the film, represent the viewpoints of the film’s director, but they only get a fraction of screen time.
Indeed, for this liberal viewer, Corddry was the film’s lone bright spot, but his is a supporting role at best. When he is on the screen, the movie makes sense because he – like the director – positions himself above the rest of the characters. But most of the time, we remain aligned with Laura, whose wicked ways are never redeemed. It’s a cold, sad place to be, made all the more lonely because the film fashions itself as a comedy. But if liberals think it is effective to caricaturize Middle America, they will not be laughing for long.
My Rating: Skip it Altogether
NOTE: “Butter” is currently in select theaters and is also available on Video on Demand.