Jennifer Garner stars — because we’re apparently still trying that — in a satire about butter-carving competitions in Midwestern America, Butter. Exactly what the film is a satire of, and who it wants to make laugh, are questions that you might be unable to answer after you see it, because it’s a very muddled and unfunny film. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t have its moments, but given the talent on-screen, it should have been sharper and funnier.
Garner stars and also plays the antagonist, a conservative woman named Laura Pickler, the wife to 15-time butter-carving champion Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell). He is asked to step aside by the committee, and while he’s fine with this, his wife isn’t. Laura decides she’ll run and win in his place, claiming that it’s the only thing in life that she has. Meanwhile, Bob is having an affair with a stripper, Brooke (Olivia Wilde), to whom he now owes money. Bob has a daughter, Kaitlin (Ashley Greene), who dislikes her stepmother and wishes to escape their small town.
On the other side of the spectrum is an orphan girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who has bounced around from family to family before finally settling in with Ethan and Jill Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone). Being a Black girl in an all-White town might make you think race might play into the plot, but it really doesn’t. Instead, it comes down to an innocent girl against a win-at-all costs woman, in the most important of events: a butter-carving contest.
The film is decent until the halfway mark. We get the inevitable training and buildup, some of the subplots are introduced and then seemingly concluded, and it seems like Butter is going to conclude on-time and quite nicely. The results of the competition are revealed, and I was prepared to write up at least a mostly positive review of the film. Then I looked at my watch and realized only 45 minutes had passed. We still had half the movie to go, and we need contrivances and repetition in order to keep it going. And going it went, for another 3/4 of an hour, dragging almost every second.
The problem here is that the narrative had reached a proper conclusion, and the writers had run out of jokes or anything to say. The darkish comedy had been used up, all of the plots had been wrapped up, and even the film’s eventual message could have easily been delivered. But, instead, we need to have a rematch, for no reason other than to reach feature-length. When a bullpen pitcher is done warming up, what does he do? He stands around, only occasionally throwing a pitch. That’s what Butter feels like. Its second half only has one or two moments worth filming (the pitch); the rest is either filler or a repeat of an earlier event (standing around).
As a result, otherwise quirky and interesting supporting characters who had been on-screen for just long enough wind up feeling as if they should go do something else, and the plot comes across as having completely run out of steam. The first half of Butter isn’t terrible, but even if it ended at the 45-minute mark, I wouldn’t have wanted to see it again any time soon. Forcing me to rewatch much of it in the very film in which I just saw it is aggravating.
I’d like to give some credit to Butter for at least having some interesting ideas. Taking the small-town event and blowing it up to make it seem like the most important thing ever is funny in its own right, and that concept works here. There is some good supporting work, some funny lines, and a couple of speeches that will make you think not of butter, but of politics, which I hope was the point.
However, it also has one of the biggest wastes of talent I’ve seen in a film. Hugh Jackman shows up on the poster (despite the second most prominent actor, Yara Shahidi, not appearing at all), and while it would have been nice if he was in the film often, he only gets a couple of scenes, none of which are particularly funny or requiring Hugh Jackman. There’s really no reason for Jackman to be in the film, and if you’re going to watch the film for his appearance, you might want to reconsider that.
I maintain that Jennifer Garner is not leading-actor material, but she’s better here than in most films, and seeing her character fight the urge to completely snap is actually kind of funny — especially when that fight is lost for just a brief moment. Yara Shahidi makes for a competent foil, and is one of the better child actors currently working. Rob Corddry, Olivia Wilde, Ty Burrell, and Ashley Greene all get a few moments in the spotlight.
Butter starts out with some promise but it runs out of steam halfway through and in its final half is repetitive and dull. It has a lot of talent in front of the camera, and while many of the actors get a chance to shine for a few scenes, they aren’t able to carry this film for the entirety of its running time. The jokes eventually wear thin, the plot is wrapped up at the 45-minute mark, and it just sits there, idling, and reminding us of the decent time we had in the first half, which wasn’t good enough to warrant a second watch so soon in the first place.