As political satires go, “Butter” is about as subtle as a slab of lard served on a slice of ham. Big, broad, but only fitfully funny, it takes a swipe at Iowa and Iowans. A few sucker punches land, thanks largely to a star-studded cast.
But it never feels like anything but an outsider’s nasty dismissal of the corn-fed corner of red-state culture.
Jennifer Garner is cast amusingly against type as Laura, a real Lady Macbeth with a butter knife. She shouldn’t have to take up that knife, but the Iowa “Mastery of Butter” judges have nudged her dairy-Degas, 15-time state fair butter-carving champ husband, Bob, out of competition.
Bob, played by Ty Burrell in sort of a henpecked version of his “Modern Family” character, buys into their reasoning. “It’s time we started giving back. You know, like Oprah.”
Laura, who frigidly imagined butter titles as their conservative ticket to the governor’s mansion, takes the butter into her own hands.
She aims to top her hubby’s previous winners, “Newt Gingrich on Horse” and “T. Rex Eats Girl.”
But our narrator, innocent little Destiny (Yara Shahidi), sees her destiny as winning the contest herself. And since she’s a 10-year-old African-American foster child given to immortalizing Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in her carvings, she’s the artist to beat in lily-white Iowa City.
Destiny and the white guilt of the judges drives Laura to distraction, and makes this prim, shrill society matron seriously lose it. When the cameras aren’t on and the judges aren’t looking, Laura is scary – Sarah Palin without the moose rifle.
Not as scary as Brooke. She’s the va-va-voom stripper-hooker Bob hooks up with because Laura isn’t just icy in the glass-refrigerated cubicles where the butter is carved. Casting the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Olivia Wilde as the sexually ferocious Brooke and setting her to pole dancing is almost as “on the nose” as having Burrell as a henpecked husband.
And the movie’s first serious blunder is showing her perform to an empty Iowa City strip club. Somebody who looks like Olivia Wilde is stripping? It’s the town that would be empty, not the club.
Brooke has a grudge against Laura, and Bob. “I can’t BELIEVE you let your wife come between us.”
Laura can’t believe she didn’t marry that future car dealer who adored her in high school (Hugh Jackman).
Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), Laura’s foul-mouthed pot-smoking stepdaughter, can’t believe the twisted, butter-obsessed family she’s stuck in.
And Destiny, shuffled from one foster family to another, can’t believe that “white people are weird.”
Yes, it’s that kind of movie, where white characters insinuate their deep dark racist thoughts for laughs, and a little black girl makes racist cracks for even weaker laughs.
The only scenes that work involve the loving family (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) that finally takes Destiny in. The only big giggles come filthily out of the mouth of the stripper.
With a British director and a young, supposedly hip TV writer behind it, “Butter” rings as hollow, shallow and false as only sneering outsiders could make it. Iowa, so unrepresentative of America today, still allowed (with equally unrepresentative New Hampshire) to pick our presidents, is a ripe target. How could they miss?
They do. Their desperation is only underlined with the closing credits.
They finish with that dead giveaway for a comedy starved of laughs – outtakes. Despite Garner’s and Wilde’s best efforts, these guys couldn’t hit a butter pat with a barn door.