Jennifer Garner’s competition satire, Butter, is reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s Election by way of the Michael Patrick Jann’s under-appreciated pageant satire Drop Dead Gorgeous (“The Swan Ate My Baby!”). Like those two films, it’s focused on mid-westerners putting up a pretense of polite folksiness, but behind the scenes, revealing themselves to be cut-throat, political, and sexually-driven characters who will stop at nothing to succeed.
Here, Garner plays Laura Pickler, first-wife so to speak to Bob Pickler (“Modern Family’s Ty Burrell), a winner of the Iowa state fair butter carving competition for 15 years running. Bob has made something of a crass art of butter sculpting, entering everything from a carving of The Last Supper to a Schindler’s List sculpture (“I loved it and I’m not even a Jew!”), and it’s given him so much small-town notoriety that Laura believes she can parlay it into the Governor’s mansion. Besides a step-daughter that hates her and a husband who is terrified of her, butter is also the only thing Laura has in her life.
However, after 15 consecutive wins, Bob is asked to retire and give someone else a chance, which brings out the overbearing nastiness is Laura, who goes on profanity-fueled tirades (Jennifer Garner screaming “mother f**ker” has fantastic echoes of Tracy Flick at her rage-iest), accusing her husband of cowering to political forces, and essentially driving him to a strip club where he’s cajoled into propositioning a stripper played gloriously by Oliva Wilde. Their mini-van lust f*ck, however, is interrupted when Laura barrels her van into theirs, and Wilde’s gloriously sexy stripper character spends much of the rest of the film literally on her too-small bicycle I-Want-My-Two-Dollaring Bob for money owed for services rendered.
Meanwhile, Laura decides to enter the butter carving competition herself, so as to keep the title in the family, and runs up against Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a ten-year-old butter carving savant who has spent most of her life in and out of foster homes, sketched out by crazy white people. She lands in the home of Ethan (Rob Corddry) and Julie (Alicia Silverstone), who reluctantly support her butter-carving aspirations, though they find the entire endeavor red-necky.
Much of the film centers on Laura stopping at nothing to destroy the chances of the adorable 10-year-old, going so far as trading sexual favors with an ex-boyfriend (a used car salesman played, weirdly, by Hugh Jackman) in exchange for his help. Meanwhile, because Laura got between her and the stripper’s sugar Daddy, the stripper also sets about to sabotage Laura’s chances in the competition, at one point seducing Laura’s high-school step-daughter.
There are a string of hilarious scenes in Butter, highlighted mostly by Garner’s shrewd, villainous housewife and Olivia Wilde’s scene-stealing stripper performance. Butter, however, takes a quick tonal shift near the end, shifting gears from funny to touching, but it mostly works thanks in part to the preconceived ideas of what we expect a Jennifer Garner character to be like.
Butter is not a hugely successful satire, but it is consistently amusing and frequently clever. At the very least, it’s enjoyable to see both Garner and Wilde play against type (although, the same cannot be said of Jackman, who is much too big of a presence to pull off a hayseed supporting character). It’s unlikely to merit much attention, either at the box office later this fall, or with the awards people, but it’s a fine diversion if you want to kill an hour at home (the movie is currently available for rental on iTunes).