Ostensibly an edgy satire that fancies itself having a wicked bite, Jennifer Garner’s pet-project “Butter,” instead employs long and broad satirical strokes that never land many effective laughs or blows. You know a comedy is seriously in trouble when there are long, uncomfortable stretches where not a soul laughs in a jam-packed theater – such was the case with the sold-out house screening of “Butter” at the Telluride Film Festival Saturday night.
Positioning itself (and by some critics) as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” the slight and ingratiating Jim Field Smith-directed film is a far cry from that (overrated) feel-good crowd pleaser. Suffering from what seems to be a busy screenplay without a good conductor, “Butter” attempts to glue far too many concepts together without a singular adhesive vision. Endeavoring to be a political satire, a sex comedy, a quirky character study, a send-up of the competitiveness in our society, and a commentary on race relations, this comedy also desperately wants you to think it’s heart-warming. While the Blacklist-favored screenplay was ambitious and sharp, in movie form “Butter” has seriously confused tonal issues and doesn’t succeed in blending concepts or nailing them individually either.
Set in the world of the Iowa State Fair competition for butter carving (which apparently really does exist), the film centers, at least at first, on 15-time butter champion Bob Pickler (“Modern Family” star Ty Burrell). Because his prowess is so undefeatable and seen as unfair to the community, Pickler is then prohibited from seeking the crown a 16th time. Unphased, Pickler announces his retirement and calls it a day. But his wife Laura (Garner) suddenly becomes unhinged and cannot cope with the blow. Somehow convinced Bob could have parlayed his small-town “fame and fortune“ into a political career, she becomes determined to keep the butter carving dynasty in the family and enters the contest on her own. An unexpected challenger arrives in the form of a 10-year-old African American girl named Destiny (newcomer Yara Shahidi) whose butter carving talents are unformed but evident. A foster child who has recently been placed with a new white foster family, Destiny’s appearance and role feels suspiciously like a manipulative plot device rather than a true-blue organic part of this tale. From there, the film’s slim plot focuses on the twists and turns these characters navigate on the road to the state butter carving competition.
Acting problems arise across the board early on. Jennifer Garner is rigidly one-dimensional, which might work if a believable context was provided for the jarring shift that occurs in the third act. Hugh Jackman’s turn is essentially a wasted (cameo) opportunity. Appearing in all of two scenes, his Boyd Bolton character is an old Laura Pickler flame, and she uses him to advance her own evil agenda. Even in his brief screen time Jackman struggles to maintain the dialect that he used for his run years ago in “Oklahoma!” on London’s West End.
While the supporting cast is great on paper, they too can’t do much with their paper-thin roles. Burrell delivers the very same husband character he plays on “Modern Family” and while Alicia Silverstone is serviceable as Destiny’s new step mom, the crucial role played by the young Shahidi also suffers from problems with character dimension. Often times she just feels flat and lifeless, which does the film no favors. Olivia Wilde appears as a stripper with vengeance on her mind in a subplot that stretches the limits of credibility from the moment her character is introduced. Ashley Greene is similarly lost in the script’s shuffle as the Pickler daughter. And so on and so on.
And yet another clue your comedy is in trouble? When veteran comedian Rob Corddry gives the most fully developed performance (as Destiny’s stepfather) in a sea full of accomplished actors at your disposal. Not to knock on Corddry, but everyone else feels helplessly trapped here and you’d expect from better from many of these names. Written by first timer Jason Micallef and directed by the man who brought you “She’s Out of My League,” both men bear a good deal of responsibility for the mess that is this film.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments of humor along the way. Corddry and Shahidi share some memorable scenes including one where he challenges her to overcome any fears she might have by imagining the worst that could happen. Their exploration of various worst case scenarios is truly funny and actually comes close to earning the kind of audience empathy that the film hopelessly yearns for. There are also some nice comedic moments from Kristen Schall (“The Daily Show“) as the leader of the Bob Pickler fan club and Phyllis Smith (“The Office”) as a county butter carving official but they come few and far between.
A late, last minute addition to the Telluride line-up — one of the two films that the organizers will “sneak” over the Labor Day weekend — past eleventh hour surprises have included Oscar contenders “Black Swan,” “Juno” and “127 Hours.” And while it’s unfair to judge this picture alongside those Academy heavyweights, festival patrons were nonetheless anticipating greater things from “Butter.” After the mixed (to say the least) reaction to “W.E.” in Venice, The Weinstein Company surely slotted “Butter” at Telluride in hopes that it could act as their back-up Oscar contender, but there better be one more ace in the hole as the cloying and indigestible “Butter” isn’t the picture or ingredient they need to save their deflating awards season cake. [C-] —Michael Patterson