[This review was originally posted as part of our Austin Film Festival 2011 coverage. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wider theatrical release.]
There are some movies you simply seek-out due to the plot description. Butter is one of those movies. I mean, it’s a story of an oppressive wife, small black orphan, and hooker (who rides a children’s bicycle around town) competing in a butter carving contest for fame and glory: How could it not be?
Butter is a film ripe with eccentric characters, offbeat humor, and an earnest message about being true to yourself and family. Or, butter. Something like that.
Director: Jim Field Smith
Butter is written by a first-time writer Jason Micallef, who — judging by looks — is fresh out of film school. This is worth mentioning because Butter is drenched in that kind of cliche film school humor you come across in, well, film school films. You know: awkward characters, post-teenage suburban angst, and a final act that eagerly wants to pull the audience’s heartstrings.
I have another film school cliche for you: The film begins in media res. In the world of Butter, Bob Pickler and wife Laura Pickler are superstars in their community due to Bob’s (played by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) gift for carving statues made of butter. Whether it’s Laura Bush or a giant T-rex eating a little girl, Bob can make it. After creating hismagnum opus — a lifelike monument of The Last Supper with Jesus and pals made of butter — he is forced into retirement, leaving his controlling, power-hungry wife, played by a spirited Jennifer Garner, to carry-on the Pickler legacy.
Butter calls to mind great films like Napoleon Dynamite, Election, and Little Miss Sunshine due it’s offbeat nature and big heart, yet the characters lack depth and the plot is predictable, outside a couple inspired moments. It feels more like a decent Simpsons episode than a film. After being introduced to the Picklers, the film abruptly changes to focus on the life of little orphan Destiny (Yara Shahidi). She travels from home to home, in search of parents that will agree to long-term adoption. Unfortunately, she keeps getting assigned elderly folks who die on her and other weird “crackers.”
Soon enough, Destiny discovers a passion for butter carving. With her new adopted family behind her, she signs up for a competition against a Bob Pickler superfan (Kristen Schaal), a hooker who wants money from Mr. Pickler, and a very determined Mrs. Pickler, who says butter carving is all she has left to live for. From this point on, the film becomes a story of greed, blackmail, sex and butter. The film has a stellar cast of comedic performers, but Rob Corddry’s down-to-earth performance as Destiny’s potential-adopted-father steals the show. However, it’s the unreal butter sculptures that save the final act from being a complete bore.
Unfortunately, the askew reality of Butter never comes together in the way a Jared Hess film does, and the heavy-hearted ending lands flat, unlike Little Miss Sunshine. The onslaught of jokes and weird, one-dimensional characters makes the story hard to believe and the characters hard to sympathize with. It’s an absurd family comedy at the start, but it wants to be something more by its end.
Butter is worth catching for its great cast, including Hugh Jackman as a Jesus-freak stud-muffin, that provide a couple laughs, but the film falls short of its ambitions. Its earnestness and and saccharine nature weigh down all the good that’s in it. You know, kind of like a film school student.