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It's important to note upfront that I enjoyed Jim Field Smith's first film, "She's Out of My League," a genial comedy that made good use of an often overlooked group of actors and made me smile occasionally, but not laugh out loud, in the way that's keeps your finger from changing the channel immediately during its frequent appearances on HBO. Having no expectations for it, it was a pleasant surprise and yet since Smith's second film "Butter," which is actually even a little better, has a more substantial pedigree, it has to be considered a mild disappointment.
Incidentally, "Butter" is a film about not meeting expectations, originating from a script that made the hallowed Black List in 2008 when its central idea of young African-American upstart challenging the wife of an established butter carving champion in Iowa was a fresh allusion to the recent Democratic primaries. But strangely in that time, the idea that the prim Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) was built in the Hilary Clinton mold has since gone by the wayside, a fact that was made clear at the film's premiere in Toronto when the film's distributor Harvey Weinstein issued a challenge to Michele Bachmann to co-host the film's premiere with him. Unfortunately, the film is amorphous enough to accommodate a range of possible real-life candidates to parody, even if it doesn't actually skewer any.
Instead, it's an amiable comedy that loses its political ambitions within the first five minutes to become a broad sendup of a small-town competition that descends into all sorts of sordid behavior. Pickler only enters the competition after her husband Bob (Ty Burrell) decides to abdicate his butter carving throne after 15 years, and Laura worries she'll lose her social standing (and by extension, her identity) as a result. On the other side of the tracks, the 10-year-old Destiny (Yara Shahidi, who really is a discovery) finds a foster home with "the whitest people imaginable," a place where she's finally able to channel her considerable art skills into butter sculpting after seeing Bob's Last Supper at the State Fair. While there isn't much more to the plot after the two register to face off against each other, the film strains to create complicating diversions such as an enterprising stripper (Olivia Wilde) owed $600 by Bob who enters the competition as payback and Laura's various attempts to undermine Destiny, including reuniting with a past flame (Hugh Jackman, in a largely superflous cameo).
Funny stuff happens along the way – Wilde, in particular, livens up the film every time she's onscreen – but there are constant reminders of the film that could've been, whether in the dueling sardonic voiceovers of Laura and Destiny, which recall Alexander Payne's far sharper "Election," or in the casual use of the F-bomb or worse that ensures an R when it's stuck in a PG world afraid to push the envelope otherwise. The characters also seem stuck – by the end of the film, they're exactly in the same condition as they are at the beginning and the script by Jason Micallef oddly doubles back to replay the competition of the second act when an alleged cheating scandal occurs, though there's little logic to the accusation other than a screenwriter running out of material for the third act.
Much of this can be forgiven with some clever jokes and a game cast, led by Garner at her impervious best. However, "Butter" has too ripe a premise to settle for easy gags such as having the young Destiny call white people "crackers" and Jackman's car dealer's coarse prayers to God. It may not be fair to criticize a film based on what it isn't rather than for what it is, but there's no doubt "Butter" should be saltier, its resemblance to anything political constrained to the slickness of a campaign commercial, proving Smith to be a solid, if unspectacular maker of studio-grade comedies. That's not to say "Butter" is not a passable entertainment, but one that's pleasures are passing.
"Butter" opens the Austin Film Festival on October 20th at the Paramount Theatre. It will be released next year by the Weinstein Company.