Have you ever wondered what might have happened to spunky, borderline-psychotic go-getter Tracy Flick from Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy ‘Election‘ after she grew up? Screenwriter Jason A. Micallef and director Jim Field Smith clearly have. Their new Midwestern satire ‘Butter’ plays like an unofficial sequel, this time substituting student government politics with the cutthroat world of competitive butter carving. Yes, really.
Smart, beautiful, ambitious and very uptight Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) is a Type A personality all the way. She has worked very hard to build the picture-perfect, wholesome all-American family. Her husband Bob (Ty Burrell from ‘Modern Family’) is known as the Michelangelo of butter carving. His elaborate sculptures have won county and state competitions fifteen years in a row (a local newspaper called his butter rendition of “The Last Supper” better than the original), and brought the family local fame that Laura fully intends to parlay into a political career for Bob. When weak-willed Bob is forced to step aside from this year’s competition to make room for new talent, Laura takes this as a direct assault on her family and her future, and hatches a plan to learn butter carving so that she can take up Bob’s mantle for herself. The only thing standing in her way is a young girl (Yara Shahidi) who turns out to be an amazing butter carving prodigy. But failure is simply not an option for Laura. Adorable orphan or not, the claws (and butter knives) come out in full force when the carving commences.
This is easily the best big-screen role that Jennifer Garner has had since ‘Juno‘. (Let’s be honest; other than ‘Juno’, it’s practically the only halfway decent big-screen role she’s ever had.) She really plays the hell out of it, but that praise has to be tempered by the knowledge that she’s essentially just doing Reese Witherspoon’s schtick from ‘Election’ again. Young Yara Shahidi manages the very difficult task of being precocious but not insufferable. While she’s kind of awesome, the wise-beyond-her-years routine gets pretty old by the end of the movie.
Burrell is also very funny, and the film has a lot of appealing supporting turns from the likes of Rob Corddry (playing against type as a very decent, upstanding foster parent), Kristen Schaal (playing very much to type, as if she was told that this was a new season of ‘Flight of the Conchords’), and Alicia Silverstone (far more tolerable here than she’s been in years). Hugh Jackman is prominently billed for a brief walk-on role as a horny car dealer. Olivia Wilde upstages all of them as a feisty stripper hell-bent on ruining Laura’s life.
The movie is quite funny, and even has some R-rated language (listening to stick-up-her-butt Laura say “Fuck!” never gets old) and gags. However, it still feels like ‘Election’-lite. The butter carving milieu, while very quirky, isn’t nearly as ripe for satire as politics. The picture also runs out of steam after a while and has a major cop-out ending.