Having never been to a state fair, I never realized that butter carving was a thing. Apparently people take large blocks of everyone’s favorite bread spread and carve it into intricate statues depicting either moments in history or snapshots of American life and put them on display at the state fair for all to see. And for Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) and her award winning, butter carving husband Bob (Ty Burrell), this is their entire life.
Laura is your average, conservative upper class, Middle American woman. She means well, but is prone to self-centeredness, a little good meaning racism here and there, and is used to getting her way. It’s all easy and bubbly when her husband is the number one butter carver in Iowa, but when he’s suddenly forced out after a 15 year win streak, things start to go awry for her. Turns out Bob has been sleeping with a stripper, Brooke (Olivia Wilde) and his daughter Kaitlen (Ashley Greene) is about as distant as can be.
Then along comes Destiny (Yara Shahidi), probably not a completely unironic name in this case, a whip smart 10 year old black orphan girl who has been shipped from foster home to foster home. As she’s found it, “white people are kind of crazy.” And in her world, they are and they’re also all quite nice, even if one of her adopted moms tried to get her to get her more Klonopin. She’s eventually taken in by a too lovely and charming couple of Julie and Ethan Emmet (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry) who discover that Destiny, despite her claims, has a talent for artwork. Destiny has also followed the exploits of the butter carving Bob Pickler on the TV and decides she too wants to become a butter carver and, once enrolled in the yearly contest, she becomes an obstacle in Laura Pickler’s quest for happiness.
When Butter is setting up its characters and establishing itself, the humor comes quick and feels fresh and smart. Garner’s Pickler is a despicable but familiar character, one of those women you hear at work or in the grocery line who says things that make you shake your head in amazement that they have the gall to say what they do. Young Yara Shahidi is instantly likeable, almost too much so, being so clever beyond her years and so talented, she’s easy to love. Wilde absolutely shines as the chain smoking Brooke, who balances the line between a nearly psychotic stalker and a likeable girl next door who’s just gone down the wrong road.
If it’s not obvious, Butter is really strongest when focuses on its female characters and how they interact. Not to say that the males in the movie falter, they don’t and Corddry is especially excellent, but they’re only there to support these women as they butt heads for their own reasons, while we watch the little train that could, Destiny, try and make her way in the crazy white person world. It’s a very clever script with a ton of laughs and unexpected moments. That is, until the third act rolls around.
Butter really is a dark comedy most of its run, blending a mixture of a critical eye on the conservative, closed minded, but honest to its fault Middle America and the viewpoint of this lifestyle from a young, black girl. But then it loses its steam once it decides to dumb itself down with the inevitable sabotage and eye rolling, upbeat ending you’d find in any Lifetime movie or sitcom on television. It’s a shame too, because the awkwardness and unlevel playing field that the film relies on in the first 2/3rds of the movie are absolutely its strong point and the ensemble cast plays to it very well.
It’s a testament to the director, Jim Field Smith, and his casting director that they’ve really picked the perfect lineup for this movie. I just wished that once the Butter had begun to melt, it didn’t end up as with predictable, gooey, soft ending. Still, it’s a fine film and one that is certainly enjoyable and well worth a view and easily one of Jennifer Garner’s best roles to date.