Every once in a while a movie so impossibly ludicrous comes along that my faith in the moviemaking industry is tested. Such is the case with the movie Butter which follows a young girl, appropriately named Destiny, as she squares off against a power-hungry hausfrau in a statewide butter-sculpting competition. How a plot like this would be able to sustain a 90-minute movie was truly baffling to me, until I saw what director Jim Field Smith was able to carve out with his talented ensemble and his acerbic wit.
Truly, Butter is a movie where countless stars shine their brightest. Ty Burrell, who most will recognize as Phil Dunphy from ABC’s Modern Family is solid as a recurring butter-carving champion, but it is his scheming ultra-American wife, Laura, who makes the film. Laura, played by the lovely and talented Jennifer Garner is equal parts homemaker and homicidal maniac. Her schemes take center stage as the film wears on, with Garner relishing ever offensive, overly-patriotic line. The comparison between her and domestic-turned-politician Sarah Palin are painfully evident, but it is in the brief moments when the movie acknowledges these roots that the humor really takes hold. Garner is truly the humor-driven core of this movie as she dangerously dangles between pathetically sympathetic and conniving bitch.
However, if Garner and the Pickler family are the humor of the film, Destiny and foster parents, the Emmets, are unquestionably the heart. Yara Shahidi, who plays the young butter-carving ingénue, is truly exemplary in her performance. Able to deliver a joke but equally equipped with a set of disarming puppy dog eyes, Shahidi fires on all rounds in Butter. It is remarkable to see this kind of quality acting in a star so young, but if Butter is any indication, Shahidi has a successful career ahead of her. However, the charm of Butter doesn’t belong to Destiny alone. It is her scenes with foster father Ethan, played by Rob Corddry, that make her performance so emotionally charged. Primarily familiar with Corddry’s absurdist humor in Children’s Hospital it is a relief to see another side of him. His father figure is never too preachy, although the foster care storyline could have lent itself to that, but instead, he is very soft and sweet with Shahidi’s Destiny. The two have a chemistry that makes for a sentimental, but not maudlin portrayal of contemporary family life.
While the performances and the sincerity of the film are all well and good, Butter is at its best as a comedy. Certainly Destiny’s story of childhood neglect and subsequent happy family life is charmingly disarming, but Butter excels when it gets back to its crass, mean-spirited roots. One of the best characters of the film, stripper Brooke, is proof. Brooke, played by the incredible Olivia Wilde, who is truly revolutionary in this comedic performance, is reason enough to see Butter. Brooke features some of the greatest lines, such as “Oh, you’re gonna get pregnant? What do you want a cookie? I get pregnant once a month!” and it only gets better from there. Everything about this character is genius and Wilde nails it. However, she is at her finest when low-down, dirty Brooke is squaring off against the prim and proper Kelly Pickler. Wilde and Garner play off each other with a kind of ferocity that just begs to have its own movie.
Luckily, for viewers, the offensive and crass humor doesn’t begin and end with Brooke. After all, Butter is first and foremost, unapologetic in its offensive nature. That’s part of its charm. Butter isn’t afraid to be offensive or politically incorrect. At the heart is some message about the cutthroat politics of competition or some other nonsense, but pure and simple, it’s funny when it’s mean. A scene early on in the film shows Laura Pickler with a group of kids with Down’s Syndrome where Laura says to them, “I’ve always thought of your people as the little flashlights that help the rest of America find its car keys.” The sheer lunacy of the statement lends itself to a laugh, but it is when one of the children responds with an incredulous “what?!?” that Butter hits the mark. Certainly offensive, but decidedly incisive humor like that makes Butter such a remarkable film.
In the end, Butter is a great many things. It’s sweet. It’s sincere. It’s funny. However, it’s smart. That’s what makes the movie so captivating. It doesn’t indulge in its quirky premise too much. Instead, it’s very honest and very grounded in its storytelling, decidedly outspoken, and an impressive commentary on the competitive American spirit. Honestly, Butter delivers for those that are just looking for quick and cheap, but it’s something more. It’s sharp and it’s smart, which might not make it popular with some audiences, but it remains a shining example of smart satire in modern filmmaking.
Butter opens on October 5th in a limited release.