September 16, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “Butter”


Jim Field Smith’s comedy BUTTER, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, ambitiously makes a play for both the heartwarming indie Little Miss Sunshine audience and the satire-minded Election crowd.  That may be one play too many, but the movie is worth seeing anyway.

Jason A Micallef’s first produced script is set in the unfamiliar (for those of us not hailing from the midwest, at least) world of competitive butter sculpting.  In the small Iowa town where the story is set, Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is a local legend, winner of the local contest for 15 consecutive years as the creator of epic artworks that include a life-size recreation of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and another inspired by Schindler’s List.  Bob is so unbeatable, in fact, that his town has decided, in the most respectful possible way, to disqualify him from further competition.  
This is unacceptable to Bob’s wife Laura (Jennifer Garner, essentially playing Reese Witherspoon’s Election character in middle age), an unstoppable engine of ambition; when it becomes clear that Bob really won’t be allowed to compete, Laura decides to enter the fray herself.  Her competition consists of Bob’s biggest fan (Kristen Schaal), a stripper with a very specific grudge against the Pickler family (Olivia Wilde)–and most dangerous of all, a preternaturally composed 10-year old African-American foster child not accidentally named Destiny (Yara Shahidi).  When it becomes clear that Destiny has a natural gift for butter sculpting, for Laura the war is on.
When Butter sticks to the personalities of the butter sculptors and those around them, it can be very funny and even heartfelt; it sometimes recalls Michael Ritchie’s 1976 smalltown beauty pageant gem Smile.  Destiny’s wary relationship with her new foster parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) is lovely; Shahidi is charming,  and Corddry may be indie film’s most lovable dad since J.K. Simmons in Juno.  (The two of them have an irresistible bit–you can see it’s improvised in the outtakes that accompany the end credits–where Corddry tries to help the girl gather the courage to enter the contest by trading the most horrible possible outcomes with her.)  Olivia Wilde has all the best lines (not to mention the best storyline) as the stripper, and she’s got genuine comic spark to go along with her almost-invisible outfits.  Burrell pretty much plays his Modern Family part (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and Hugh Jackman turns up late in the game and overplays his silly part, but Garner–also a producer of the film–seizes her role by the throat and plays her with absolute conviction, fully realizing both Laura’s fiendishness and the desperation that drives her.  
Butter gets into trouble when it tries to shoehorn itself into political allegory.  (Instead of Smile, its model seems to become Nasty Habits, a 1977 flop that transferred Watergate into a nunnery.)  The picture’s opening sequence pushes the parallels hard, with Garner instantly identifiable as a Palin/Bachmann clone, and after establishing Bob Pickler as an apolitical blank, having him mix his DaVinci and Spielberg sculptures with a Newt Gingrich portrait feels like an out-of-character gag.  Smith’s only other feature film was the cruddy comedy She’s Out Of My League, and subtlety isn’t his strong point–giving him material that calls for a “You get it?  Do you get it?” emphasis is a bad idea.  (There’s also a clumsily obvious post-production alteration to the third-act plot, effected with voice-over narration.  It’s easy enough to see why the change was made–the eternal Hollywood need for characters to be likable–but it weakens the story, and the slipshod way it’s been done doesn’t help.)
Butter is a mixed bag, and its efforts to Make A Statement tend to melt away more often than they work.  When the movie is content to simply depict its slightly mad millieu and daffy characters, though, it’s a sharp, satisfying entertainment.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."