Politics is a greasy business. It's slick and slimy, and though it has moments of richness, in the end, it leaves behind a nasty film, kind of like that sheen left on your fingers when you've been handling butter.
Jim Field Smith's new film, Butter, isn't political, per se, except that it absolutely is in the grandest satirical sense. It isn't as biting as Alexander Payne's Election, but it has moments that are funny and truthful, despite an occasional overreliance on sex jokes and an attitude toward the heartland and its conservatives that sometimes crosses the line into mean-spiritedness.
Butter itself is at the heart of the film. You see, Bob Pickler (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) is Iowa's uncontested butter-carving champion. The guy makes magnificent, high-in-cholesterol sculptures, but the powers-that-be in the butter-carving industry feel that after 15 years of competition dominance, it's time someone else had a shot.
That's tough for Bob to swallow, but it's harder for his wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), a squeaky cross between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann who enters the competition on her own, spurred on by Bob's dalliance with Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a hooker who has the opposite of a heart of gold and who also decides to enter the butter arena.
But Brooke isn't Laura's real competition. No, that comes in the form of Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a 10-year-old African-American foster child who's just been taken into the home of Ethan (Rob Corddry) and Julie (Alicia Silverstone), the sort of Midwestern, NPR-listening progressives who probably have a Nina Totin' Bag in their front closet. Destiny has a natural gift when it comes to carving butter, and the tableaus she creates, like Harriet Tubman riding the Underground Railroad, are a stark contrast to Laura's work, which features scenes like the assassination of JFK.
So, let's put the parts together: Young, good-hearted African-American taking on a thoroughly uptight conservative woman whose family has history on its side. In Iowa, of all places. The parallels are clear, right?
Actually, Butter is at its best when it's unabashedly political. The film's problem is that the satire, which is quite clever, has to elbow its way out of a pretty standard competition film, complete with carving montages and a saboteur (Hugh Jackman) dedicated to sticking it to the good lefties. We've seen that film a thousand times, and Butter isn't ashamed to use the template.
Smith succeeds when he deviates from the formula, usually by showing the human side of his competitors. Laura is a tough nut, because, in many ways, she's a stereotype that we love to hate. It's when Garner's given the opportunity to show some real emotion that we feel there's a real person underneath the ice-queen.
Not every actor is as lucky: Wilde's character is really just a sexual foil to be foisted on conservatives who are known for their lack of resolve against temptation. On the other side, young Shahidi is remarkably appealing as Destiny. But the big winner here is Corddry, who plays it straight as Ethan. He's funny, compassionate, endearing and charming, a reversal of what we're used to, and this is easily one of the best things he's ever done.
The film hits theaters just in time for election season. And the choice is clear: Overall, Butter beats margarine in a landslide.