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Butter isn’t just for spreading on toast anymore — it’s also the title of a pretty weak independent comedy directed by Jim Field Smith. The film’s characters are stock, and its narrative is both unfocused and disappointingly safe. For what’s supposed to be 90 minutes of skewering the ridiculousness of small town America, Butter doesn’t have much of an edge, and with a cast this talented, the film has no excuse to fall as short as it does.
Believe it or not, there are actually parts of America where butter sculpting is a thing. One of these places is Iowa City, where Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) has owned the sport for 15 years. He’s the Babe Ruth of butter sculpting, and his version of the “Called Shot” is a remarkable — and life-size — butter replica of The Last Supper.
Over time, Bob’s work with butter vaulted he and his wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), to a place of prominence within this tightly knit Midwestern city, and Laura dreams of the day when she can parlay their popularity into a run at the Governor’s mansion — or even the White House.
But it all comes crashing down when the head of the butter competition committee rather suddenly asks Bob to stop entering. It’s someone else’s time, he says. The genial Bob agrees, but crazy Laura won’t. She enters and must go up against a crazed Bob fan (Kristen Schaal), a vengeful stripper (Olivia Wilde), and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a pre-teen orphan who some might say is even more skilled than Bob.
The film wants to be about more than just this butter competition, but as a political parable, it’s muddled at best. Laura is a hard-nosed, God-fearing conservative with genuine aspirations to serve, but Smith is more content setting up comically awkward situations and character interactions than he is exploring the way her sometimes deplorable actions affect her dreams. This makes Butter‘s arc and structure (which starts with her on the stump before flashing back to the events described above) feel unearned.
But the film is pretty funny thanks to a few quality supporting performances. Rarely will you laugh out loud, but Schaal has some hilarious moments as the cat-loving Carol-Ann. Wilde also shines as the incredibly foul-mouthed and vindictive stripper Brooke. Meanwhile, Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone give quality performances, albeit not very comedic ones. They play Destiny’s new foster parents, the first ones who’ve ever truly cared about the young girl. This thread is much more successful than one might expect thanks to this unlikely duo.
It’s the film’s two leads that disappoint most. Burrell gives a fine performance, but he’s arguably the funniest actor in the cast and he doesn’t say or do much that could be construed as funny. Garner, meanwhile, is awful. Laura is a borderline offensive caricature. The blame belongs as much to Jason A. Micallef’s tepid screenplay and Smith’s overwrought direction, but everything about the character — from her exaggerated walk to her moral inconsistencies — is maddening.
Butter is basically everything you’d expect from a bad indie comedy. Its attempts at being different and smart just come across as forced quirkiness. It’s over-stylized, under-plotted, and not much fun at all.