' ' Cinema Romantico: Butter

Monday, October 08, 2012


Late last year in anticipation of the Iowa caucuses, University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom wrote a lightning rod of an article for The Atlantic. It caused much consternation among the natives – of which, full disclosure, I am one – and, indeed, it was rife with harsh potshots and ridiculous generalizations. However, it did get a few things quite right. Iowa isn’t flat as a pancake and it is “a place of bizarre contrasts.” That’s what I love most about the place – its bizarre contrasts. And perhaps in that spirit (but probably not), Jim Field Smith’s "Butter" is a film with bizarrely contrasting tones.

"Butter" turns on Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), a tightly wound trophy wife who, to quote Charlton Heston in "Any Given Sunday", "I honestly believe...would eat her young", and Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an 11 year old black orphan who has been shuttled back and forth between foster homes and who has settled in with her most recent set of adoptive parents in Johnson County, Iowa.

Laura's husband Bob (Ty Burrell) has been the Iowa State Butter Carving Champion 15 years running - "You're the Elvis of butter" - but has become so dominant they ask him to step aside this time around and give someone else a chance. Like hell they will, says Laura, who immediately decides to take up the Pickler flag and carve some butter herself. She will stop at nothing, which she merely proves by ramming her husband's minivan when she catches him in the midst of fornication of with a brooding tattooed BMX-riding stripper, Brooke (Olivia Wilde), for whom he's pitifully fallen and whom he’s promised $600 for her rent. Brooke wants that cash, even if it means sculpting a little dairy product or feigning interest in the Pickler's wannabe rebel daughter.

Destiny, however, is the wild card, a butter carving novice turned prodigy and her first set of kindly adoptive parents Ethan and Jill Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) encourage her to enter the local county contest that will determine entry into the statewide contest. It is meant as nothing beyond a boost of self-esteem but turns into much more once the ladies throw down in their respective "cooling rooms."

Written by Jason Micallef, his script is meant to make a mockery of the political process as much as the absurdity of any self-serious state fair competition. How low can you go to achieve a sense of superiority? Laura Pickler will go pretty low and Garner, speaking in an accent that makes no sense for where she lives and from where she hails, does a half-decent job evoking less a villainous mastermind than an imposing sort of woman who strong-arms you into buying cobbler you didn't want at the church bake sale. Her husband’s infidelity isn’t what upsets her as much as the possible soiling of the Pickler brand.

The problem is that while all that dark comedy is going on in the Pickler household, a sweeter and much more straight faced after school special is going on in the Emmet household, one that throws the balance of the film out of whack. Rather than locating a nimble balance of satire and empathy throughout it just lurches back and forth scene to scene, softening every single punch the film tries to land, severely compromising a coulda-been sardonic exposé and leaving Hugh Jackman (miscast) reading instructions off notecards hidden in his ten gallon hat in a sketchy scene that even "Saturday Night Live" would have nixed. As surprising as it might sound, the one actor who knows how to play it just right is Rob Corddry.

I admit that I have never been a Corddry fan. His in your face antics often leave me worn out. But in "Butter" he ably portrays a genteel man who only loses it when pushed to the brink, and his losing it, in fact, speaks for those of us Iowans diversifying from the norm who hate the State Fair and avoid it at all costs and who carved as much butter as they detasseled corn (read: none). “Oh, and news flash! Butter’s bad for you!” Preach it like you teach it.

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