Judge Daryl Loomis is the king of carving butter into slices and stuffing them into his mouth.
High in cholesterol, low in moral values.
Until a few weeks ago, when I saw a photo of a bust of Barack Obama fashioned from butter, I had no idea that the art of butter carving actually existed. Like noodling, the Oklahoma art of catching a catfish with your bare arm, butter carving seems like a ridiculous concept used to mock people; yet, both are real things with real tournaments whose winners get real prizes. Absurd as all of that is, it's perfect fodder for parody, which director Jim Field Smith (She's Out of My League) mines in Butter, a dark comedy that could use a little more darkness, but spreads well and comes out pretty tasty.
Facts of the Case
Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell, Modern Family) has been Iowa City's butter carving king for fifteen years, but has been asked to step down this year to let somebody else have a shot. He's fine with all of this, but Laura (Jennifer Garner, Juno), his wife, has her whole identity devoted to this empire. So, instead of taking it lying down, she decides to enter the contest herself, despite having no experience with the art. She's not alone, though, because not only has Brooke Swinkowski (Olivia Wilde, TRON: Legacy, her husband's stripper girlfriend, entered the competition, so has a young African-American foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi, Salt), who has serious skills with a knife and the drive to win, but Laura will stop at nothing to take the crown.
In spite of a very positive notice after its debut at the 2011 Telluride Film Festival, Butter has since received almost complete negativity since. It's a little bit strange to me, but I think that critics have decided, in this year's ultra-tense political environment, to read far too much into the story. If one takes the film's opening at face value, I can see how that might happen. It begins with Garner and Burrell standing on stage, elated that one of them (it isn't quite clear which) has become governor of Iowa. In a voiceover, Garner talks about "the liberal media" and says, "I believe in America; I think we're the best," echoing a certain Midwestern female member of the House of Representatives.
It doesn't really go any farther than that, and only serves to give a little bit of initial flavor to the character. People can stretch that into calling Butter a political film, but it does a disservice to what is a very funny medium-dark comedy. It slowly emerges that Laura is basically nuts, which shows itself after the combined outrages of losing her precious butter sculpting empire and discovering her husband's affair. She suddenly becomes obsessed with the competition and, in wanting to keep her "perfect" marriage intact, becomes obsessed with destroying Brooke, who only enters the competition to make Laura's life extra miserable.
Both characters are a spot-on pair of antagonists that are delightful to watch. Partial credit goes to screenwriter Jason Micallef, but most of it goes to the actresses. Olivia Wilde is the highlight of the film, her character a hilariously vindictive woman to contrast Laura's nasty obsessiveness. Garner is great, as well, taking the type of character she developed in Juno to dislikable new comic heights. Completing the trio butter sculpting women is the young Yara Shahidi, who is fantastic as the orphan girl, delivering her lines with a ton of attitude, standing up surprisingly well to her older, much more experienced counterparts.
While they are the center of the film, Butter has plenty of great supporting performances. Alicia Silverstone (Vamps) and Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine) are great as Destiny's ridiculously white foster parents, Kristen Schaal (Toy Story 3) has a small role as a butter groupie, and Hugh Jackman (X-Men) makes a funny appearance as Laura's dull, car salesman ex-boyfriend. These performances are all strong, especially Corddry's, though I wish Silverstone had a more substantial role; it becomes a very good performance piece with funny lines throughout the film.
Jim Field Smith (She's Out of My League) directs the action skillfully and delivers a great looking film. It's bright, colorful, and always a pleasure to look at, with well shot interiors and gorgeous views of the Iowa landscape. The film is put together smartly, with good pacing and a few strong sight gags, but it works more because of the writing and performances than the direction. My only real complaint about it is that Smith doesn't quite take the extra step to make it a truly dark comedy. There are a few solid moments of black humor, but it winds up lighter hearted than I expected, especially given the way it starts. It's a small complaint, really, because I had more than a few solid laughs, but a little more meanness would have been welcome.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray release of Butter does this good looking film justice. The package arrives with both Blu-ray and standard definition discs, which has become more standard all the time, though if you have the technology, there's no reason to watch the SD version. The 2.35:1/1080p image generally looks excellent, with strong black levels, and some very yellow butter. The transfer is nearly perfect and features crisp detail and a clean look. Sound-wise, the film isn't terribly dynamic, but it's still very solid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix presents the dialog and music very nicely, but there's only occasional use of the rear channels or subwoofer. When used, the mix has fine definition, but there's barely enough to make mention.
Extras are something of a disappointment, with only about nine minutes of deleted scenes and a gag reel on the disc. Some of this stuff is pretty funny, but with only about twelve minutes of total supplements, people who want more information about the film will have to look elsewhere.
Butter plays well as a comedy about obsession, but it doesn't quite go dark enough for my taste. It's very funny in places, though, and the performances are good all around, so there's plenty to like in the film. If you're a professional butter sculptor, you may feel a bit like the film mocks your art, and maybe it does, but when you're standing in a refrigerated room cutting dairy products into elaborate shapes, then you're kind of asking for it.
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