With a cast as eclectic and talented as the one on display in the new social satire Butter, one might expect great things. After all, why would an A-lister like Jennifer Garner produce, Hugh Jackman drop in for a cameo, and Olivia Wilde relegate herself to writhing on the floor as a foul mouthed stripper?
The answer - as it usually is at press conferences where stars tout their wares and explain their choices - is the script.
“Quirky and brilliant,” said Ashley Greene of Twilight fame. “Oddball,” said director Jim Field Smith. “Loved the script,” declared Emmy nominee Ty Burrell. “Very funny and very different,” he added. Olivia Wilde raved, “I loved the script from the moment I saw it. I wanted to fight for it.” Jennifer Garner told us that she and her producing partner were attracted by the script as well. “It allowed us to do something we never were asked to do before.” Finally, Rob Corddry injected some much needed levity (and perhaps sincerity) into the mushy proceedings. “I just count my lines and the dick jokes,” he deadpanned.
What the shared reaction of this sophisticated bunch to Jason A. Micallef’s script tells me is that sparkling words on the page do not always glimmer on screen.
The kernel of what intrigued about Butter is apparent in moments throughout this often mean, often heartwarming, occasionally amusing tale of Middle-American privilege, class warfare, and the absurd ways in which humans seek to define and elevate themselves.
It is difficult, if not counter-productive, to craft a film that is both saccharine and subversive, but Butter manages the feat.
In the film, Garner and Burrell play Laura and Bob Pickler, an unhappily married couple who bask in the glow of Bob’s prestigious reign as butter carving champion of a small Iowa town one hundred years running. When Bob’s legacy is threatened, Laura goes into ice queen terminator mode and Bob flees into the legs of the manipulative seductress played enthusiastically by Wilde.
Laura’s main competition to return to glory is a foster kid (played by Yara Shahidi – think a less-spoiled, more charming Willow Smith) taken in by a buttoned-up childless couple (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry). As smart, savvy, and witty as the film is at times, it never escapes the inherent identity crisis in its makeup. We go from uplifting, cheese-ball moments about equality and self-belief to gratuitous depictions of same sex statutory rape. To the giggling glee of the cast, Shahidi admitted she was not permitted to read the entire script.
Jennifer Garner said that one of her motivations to produce and star in Butter was because she was sick of her own image on screen. “If I saw that insipid smile one more time, I was going to throw up,” she said. That is all well and good, but that does not mean audiences are necessarily ready to see the bunny rabbit cute actress promiscuous and loathsome.
Burrell said that when a movie is toned down to garner a PG-13 rating, the audience loses its ability to see the entirety of a person. We lose the dark side. More power to you, but trying to be edgy is not the same as being edgy. Butter has the flavor of an issue forced.
Micallef said, “I just write. I don’t think about where the film fits in. I leave that to marketing people.”
It is that lack of vision that has Butter betraying its namesake. As the creamy, simple spread has always been many things to many people, the film will struggle to please anyone. Except its cast and filmmakers of course.