Has there been a better political satire in the thirteen years since Alexander Payne’s “Election” hit theaters? 2006's “Thank You for Smoking” may have been sharper with its wit, but it lacked the core sadness that drove its characters toward would-be glory. No, Tom Perrotta’s novel and Payne’s adaptation tapped into that sweet spot where small stakes and petty behavior intersect, so it’s hard to blame a newcomer like “Butter” for trying to mine the same turf for its own laughs.
Our backdrop this time? The very real world of competitive butter carving, wherein Iowa favorite Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is taking his leave after fifteen years as reigning champ, renowned for his sculptures inspired by works of art ranging from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
Trophy wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) isn’t done with trophy collecting, though, and after catching Bob having a fling with a particularly brash stripper, Brooke (Olivia Wilde), she dives headlong into butter carving in order to preserve their good name. Out of spite for both Bob and his wife, Brooke follows suit, and each woman soon finds herself outmatched by Destiny (Yara Shahidi), an 11-year-old butter-carving prodigy who serves as the Obama figure to Laura’s Hillary Rodham Clinton/Sarah Palin amalgam.
I know -- how very 2008. Once the wilted satire of Jason Micallef’s script is stripped away, what’s left is a generally amusing competition comedy, in which the silliness of their rivalries wins out over any intended political jabs. Director Jim Field Smith (“She’s Out of My League”) keeps the tone buoyant, lest the sappiness of Destiny’s orphan background or the raunchiness of Brooke’s behavior skewed the overall picture too far towards either extreme, and his lensing is suitably bright for the mood, with Louisiana being convincingly passed off for the Midwest.
Garner proves exceptionally brittle throughout, making the most of resentments old and new that are barely masked by her perpetually pert smile and an air of phony civility. Even when burdened with too-easy lines of “crackers are whack!” voice-over, Shahidi’s modest charms suit her character’s own humble ways rather nicely. The supporting ranks are filled with game comedic players, from Burrell to Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone as Destiny’s latest set of adoptive parents, to Ashley Greene as Bob and Laura’s angsty daughter, to Kristen Schaal as an aloof butter groupie, all the way down to a rarely doltish Hugh Jackman in a modest role as a former flame of Laura’s.
However, none of them ever quite match the spitfire charms of Wilde’s performance. Often relegated to babe-of-the-month turns in a variety of studio pictures (“Tron: Legacy,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “The Change-Up”), her casually classless skank -- “I get pregnant, like, once a month!” -- serves as the apathetic Tammy Metzler opponent to Garner’s Tracy Flick, to belabor the “Election” comparisons. Whether traipsing about on an ill-suited bike, donning folksy garb and name-checking Jesus for the sake of public appearances, or proceeding to sexually liberate other members of the Pickler clan in order to get what she wants, Wilde just about steals the show whenever given the chance.
Does the rest of it seem a bit tame at times, maybe even a tad familiar? (Remember when we were treated to overhearing our characters’ prayers in Payne’s film? How about some third-act sabotage?) Sure, but “Election” couldn’t boast an extravagant replica of JFK’s assassination made out of dairy product, and frankly, it’s touches like those -- and performances like Wilde’s -- that keep “Butter” from dropping out of comedic contention entirely.
“Butter” is currently available On Demand and opens in select cities on October 5th.