Pretty much everybody knows when they’re being mocked. In director Jim Field Smith’s Butter, the focus of the film’s snipes is anyone electing not to live near a coast. Butter’s most pronounced (but by no means only) flaw is a dopey mischaracterization of flyover residents, a grating and poorly-iterated version of “get a load of these rubes.” The film revolves around the medium-stakes world of Midwestern competitive butter carving, with veteran Iowa champion Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell, who apparently has right of first refusal on all goofy dad roles) facing involuntary but not unwelcome retirement. Bob’s wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner), bristles at the mere mention of relinquishing the limelight, stepping away from center stage threatens the Stepfordian type-A superiority that sustains her. When Bob tells Laura he’s getting out of the game, the couple fights, Bob has sex with a stripper (Olivia Wilde), and Laura decides to both disregard the infidelity and take up the mantle of family butter-carving champion herself.
Elsewhere, a small orphaned black girl named — no shit — Destiny (Yara Shahidi) finds herself finally in a comfortable foster parent situation, with Ethan and Jill Emmett (Rob Cordry and Alicia Silverstone) offering her a loving home and an opportunity to follow her dreams. Destiny sneaks into one of Bob’s final installations (a gigantic dairy rendering of the Last Supper) and learns she has a knack for butter carving. The rest of the film, with a few digressions and some random Hugh Jackman, is about the rivalry that develops between Destiny and Laura, with each refining their own more and more elaborate butter sculptures, the culmination of which is Laura’s massive recreation of the presidential motorcade in Dallas the moment after JFK is shot. Outside of this unsalted art object and a few other choice moments, the humor in Jason Micallef’s script is so broad it thuds. The characters behave predictably; the stripper tries to shake down the Picklers for money, the foster parents are progressive but clumsy, the little girl is sweet and sassy. The only character with any developing to do is Garner’s, and yet even after enduring the regional contests and various other humblings, Laura never rescinds her superiority; instead, she runs for governor.
The point the film keeps reaching for is that reliably American homily: regardless of origin, race, wealth, or social standing, anyone devoted enough and talented enough should be permitted to succeed. Despite the seeming oddness of their chosen arena, Destiny and Laura are pitched in battle, with Destiny creating butter sculptures that reflect her difficult existence and Laura carving manipulative paeans to family values in an effort to win over the judges. It’s Laura’s relentless hypocrisy that makes the film such an assault on midwestern morality; she believes in nothing but her own entitlement, but will use everything from cries of public decency to Jesus himself to demonstrate her own inherent kindness. Smith and Garner (also one of the film’s producers) tilt at the coded racism they believe themselves to be portraying so tactlessly that it ultimately undercuts their argument; they come off as the condescending Hollywood liberals that make genuine activists wince.
Even worse than the film’s insistence that it has a real message is the realization that Butter is also a deliberate allegory. The plucky African American upstart taking on the established hero’s wife (who soldiers on after her husband cheats on her), in Iowa of all places, is a half-veiled retelling of the 2008 Democratic primaries, except in Butter, anything that made that contest compelling or interesting is reduced to a punchline about playing the race card or how hookers make rent. The film’s political muddiness would be worth investigating further if the movie itself weren’t already so tiring. The pat emotional payoff of rooting for Destiny (please just don’t even) feels even flimsier upon recognizing what she’s expected to symbolize. Understanding the source of the film’s narrative ultimately makes Butter even more of a struggle to respect, let alone recommend.