According to Wikipedia, the script for Butter placed third on Leonard Franklin’s 2008 blacklist of Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays. I have no way of knowing if the finished film is in any way, shape, or form faithful to the original script, but if it is, then I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled as to why it was so highly revered. I grant you that it has its good points, but on the whole, it plays like a satire in search of something to satirize. This is a bit odd given the fact that the material is rife with easy targets, namely family, racism, piety, infidelity, Middle American values, and small-town ignorance. Director Jim Field Smith plays it safe when he should have gone for the jugular. This is not to say he should have been crude, dark, or perverse – he simply should have made his movie about something.
The film is essentially a collection of two main plots and three minor subplots, all revolving around an annual butter-sculpting competition in a small Iowa town. In one of the main plotlines, we meet Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), a controlling, manipulative, high-strung, conservative trophy wife whose power-hungry ambitions far exceed the limits of the town. Her husband, the henpecked Bob (Ty Burrell), has been the reigning butter-sculpting champion for years; he has wowed the locals with his renditions of Jesus’ Last Supper and the movie Schindler’s List. He’s asked to step down and let someone else have a chance, and although he’s willing to comply, Laura isn’t; so as to retain her status as someone of importance, she enters herself into this year’s butter-sculpting competition, despite having no prior experience as an artist.
The other main plotline is narrated by its subject, a ten-year-old black girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a foster child who doesn’t know her own last name because the state of Iowa doesn’t know it, either. She lives in hope that her mother will someday come back for her, although given how down-to-earth she is, it’s hard to believe that she would really be that naïve. Regardless, having been sent to live with one bizarre white family after another, she’s taken in by Ethan and Jill Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), who may have their idiosyncrasies but are all-around decent people that obviously care for Destiny. As it so happens, Destiny is a talented sculptor, and in due time, she’s encouraged to enter the butter competition. This sends Laura into warrior mode, as she doesn’t want to be outdone by an ethnic minority with a sob story.
Regarding the three minor subplots, one involves a crass stripper named Brooke (Olivia Wilde), who does some prostituting on the side for extra cash. One of her clients is Bob; when he stiffs her out of the several hundred dollars he promised to give her, she vows to get her revenge. This involves entering herself into the butter competition and trying to humiliate Laura, as it seems she came between Brooke and Bob – or, more accurately, his money. Another subplot involves Bob and Laura’s rebellious daughter, Kaitlin (Ashley Greene), becoming attracted to Brooke for being so “alternative.” So infatuated is Kaitlin that she repeatedly fails to notice that Brooke’s only interests are (1) making Laura look bad and (2) getting her money. The third subplot involves Laura roping her high-school sweetheart, an idiot car salesman named Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman), into a scheme to defame Destiny.
The film relies on a sense of humor that, despite some foul language and sexual explicitness, would be more at home on a thirty-minute sitcom episode. Consider a moment when a woman overhears Brooke referring to Laura as the C-word; the woman’s quirky reaction is, “I haven’t heard that word since my father died.” If I had to single out one plotline that actually made an effort to be break its sitcom boundaries and be engaging, it would have to be the one involving Destiny. Partly, it has to do with the fact that her story relies less on satire and more on character development; we’re actually made to care about her. We’re also made to care about the Emmets, especially Ethan, who doesn’t have to condescend to Destiny in order to communicate with her. I think his appeal is helped by the casting of Corddry, who goes against type by not playing the vulgar wiseass he typically plays.
All leads to a rather tidy ending that, while certainly pleasant, is atmospherically inconsistent with the rest of the film. Because nothing especially surprising or thought-provoking happens at that point, we have time to reflect on various other mistakes this movie makes. My mind immediately turned to Hugh Jackman, whose character contributes absolutely nothing and is introduced so late in the story that we probably wouldn’t have noticed any potential contribution. And then there’s Olivia Wilde; her character’s motivation to collect her money is far more understandable than her hatred of Laura and her participation in the butter competition. Honestly, what is she trying to prove? Butter has moments of effectiveness, but it doesn’t really go anywhere and isn’t really about anything.