“Are these crackers for real?” asks Destiny, the sweet ten-year-old African American foster child, as she confronts the peculiar customs of white Iowans.
Destiny finds a home amidst the weirdos in Butter, a screamingly funny new movie from director Jim Field Smith and writer Jason A. Micallef, and then she chooses a peculiarly Midwestern form of self-expression: butter carving.
The story opens with longtime butter carving champion Bob Pickler (played with a wonderful deadpan by Ty Burrell) being asked to step aside and give someone else a chance to win the county and state championships. Time for “the Elvis of butter” to rest on the laurels of his refrigerated masterpieces. But his wife Laura, played with a simmering ridiculousness and impulsiveness by a wild-eyed Jennifer Garner, is having none of that, so she enters the county contest. Garner’s performance is obviously drawn from the media images of bold, attractive, shooting-from-the-hip, perennially aggrieved politicians like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. The political echoes give Garner’s work here a special charge. I found it impossible not to watch her whenever she was on screen.
Laura’s butter carving skills are challenged by the young Destiny (the adorable Yara Shahidi), whose sculptural nods to black history leave Laura livid about the playing of the race card. To Laura, this isn’t just a butter carving contest but a battle for history and a battle for the future. Laura has considerable technical skill with butter, but her artistic choices — from Hallmark Card schmaltzy to a graphically violent historical scene — are as shaky as her motives.
Olivia Wilde has some great moments as a stripper who has it out for Laura and Bob, and Hugh Jackman is stolid and stupid as Laura’s easily manipulated high school boyfriend. Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry have some strong moments too as Destiny’s latest foster parents.
I’m sure there will be complaints about the film’s stereotypes and caricatures — the orphan with the heart of gold, the repressed Bachmannesque housewife, the sharp-tongued stripper — but the film never turns bitter. The characters remain true to their own absurdity. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so hard — and so often — at the movies.