It seems in vogue in big-name indie comedies to use the Midwest as the backdrop of humorous naiveté dressed up as sweetness. Most of the jokes are good-natured and rib the citizens of our simple communities as uncomplicated but well-meaning rubes, likely to be amazed by an airplane or a skyscraper. Certainly that was the case for Cedar Rapids (2011), which was less about the titular city and more about a certain type of person in a certain type of industry. Butter (2012), in its attempt to create a political satire in the guise of a culture war between a black orphan and a Sarah Palin-esque neophyte engaging in a butter-sculpting contest, goes so far away from truth, from sweetness, from comedy, that it finds itself all alone, having missed its political target, its geographic target and its target of being an enjoyable movie.
Maybe I’m biased. I live in Iowa; I was raised here. The movie mocks the butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair, which is a real thing and is a fairly big deal (though not the cultural monolith Butter says it is), and I have waited in line to see it (though I usually just crane my neck around the crowd to catch a glimpse of it). I can accept that a state that values butter art is rife for cinematic ridicule, perhaps even welcomes it. If Butter wants to assert that Iowans are slack-jawed, unintentionally racist greenhorns and religious zealots that think the height of culture is Deal or No Deal and who are too polite even to cut in an empty line, I say go for it. I can take a joke, and Lord knows there are some to be made about the Hawkeye state, but to try to do so in such a smug, heavy-handed and painfully unfunny way is Butter’s sin, and Butter is quite the transgressor.
We have Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), the overly ambitious wife of Iowa’s leading butter sculptor, Bob (Ty Burrell). Bob is asked to withdraw from the competition to have his pieces exhibited at the state fair (he’s been the winner for 15 years and the organizers think it’s time for a change, because variety in your butter art is essential, of course; for what it’s worth, the real butter sculpture is not selected by contest and the same artist routinely provides the piece for decades). Laura then enters the competition herself, mad with lust for the “power and prestige the position provides” (which, trust me, isn’t much).
Garner affects a pseudo-Palin accent, which, beyond pounding home one of the movie’s most obvious points, places her outside of Iowa, Alaska and the planet Earth. Just the same, thanks to her drive and apprenticeship under Bob, her path to the state fair seems set until Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an orphan who has bounced around and lands with a nice farm couple played by Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry, enters the competition and displays incredible talent. The rest of the movie marches slowly toward the showdown between the frigid power hog and the innocent prodigy, though it does waste time with some useless side plots involving a stripper played by Olivia Wilde who wants to squeeze the Picklers for money and a dim car salesman played by Hugh Jackman who is in cahoots with Laura to sabotage Destiny.
Despite its robust stable of competent comedic actors, the entire movie is submarined by the odious script by Jason A. Micallef, which gives characters confusing and competing motivations, goes for the easy joke every time (the movie wants to be cutting about race, but it’s just cringe worthy) and sets up a plot dependent on a storyline that makes so little sense it’s insulting. Destiny originally wins at the county level, knocking Laura from the competition until she and the car salesman hatch a plan to assert that Destiny cheated, claiming that the car salesman was the real sculptor. Though they have no evidence and the judges got to watch Destiny sculpt the butter by herself during the contest, the claim is taken seriously. Laura suggests that the two compete head to head at the fair, which Destiny agrees to. There are no repercussions for the car salesman or for Destiny, who by accepting the challenge, implicitly admits that she cheated. In fact, the only potential hiccup the movie provides for the scheme is whether or not the appropriate paperwork can be drawn-up in time for the fair.
Micallef is so positive he’s penned a biting satire (it’s allegedly based on the 2008 Democratic Primary, the connection to which was lost on me), but the critiques never land because the characterization is so inconsistent. It paints these boobs as ignorant goodies but also as ethically corrupt, who would just as soon be won over by hollow platitudes about Jesus as they would jump into a bed with someone other than their spouse. That would be fine if the movie didn’t insist that these goobers really believe in their moralistic prattle. Bad people operating under the guise of goodness is one thing, here we get bad people who preach goodness, behave badly and don’t understand the difference. That isn’t funny, it’s just sad. The smarmy ending is so condescending that it would be more insulting if we hadn’t been trained to expect it by the preceding eighty minutes. There are some nice moments between Shahidi (who is very appealing, despite being asked by the script to be little more than black and cute—in that order, sadly) and Corddry, but they exist far too sparingly to redeem the writing, like butter spread over too much toast.
The direction offers no relief, as the treatment by Jim Field Smith is barely competent. The movie is poorly made. Visual gags are botched and vocal parts are obviously inserted over b-roll where there clearly wasn’t enough coverage to have them match with the characters who say them. There is some actual footage of the real Iowa State Fair (although Destiny gets there by biking down a corn-lined road, which is like showing a man walk through the forest in one shot and then arriving in Manhattan in the next, it’s possible, but there are some steps missing), but all the other details are patently wrong. Butter gets one thing right: A character dreams of blowing out of her backwater home by longingly exhaling, “We could move to Des Moines,” then adds in summation many Iowans’ most ardent dream, “or maybe Chicago.” It also gives us a little too much credit in one way: Our strippers don’t look like Olivia Wilde. Perhaps I have a unique perspective about why Butter is so bad, but that perspective doesn’t come from the fact that I’m from Iowa. It comes from the fact that I’ve seen better movies than this one, a list which is a country mile long.