(This review was originally posted on September 15th, 2011, as part of the TIFF)
PLOT: Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is the butter-carving champ of the Midwest, and along with his domineering wife, Laura (Jennifer Garner) is the idol of his Christian-conservative neighbours- but all is not well in the Pickler household. Tired of his tyrannical wife, Bob has taken up with a local stripper/hooker, Brooke (Olivia Wilde)- but is caught in the act by Laura, who, upon his refusal to compete, becomes determined to establish herself as the State's new butter-carving champ. Meanwhile, she has some competition in a ten-year-old foster child, Destiny (Yara Shahidi), not to mention Brooke, who's upset at losing her meal ticket- Bob.
REVIEW: Oh my lord. It happens every year. With all the Oscar-bait, and high-profile premieres, there's always going to be the one buzzed-about film that comes along and falls flat on it's face. Last year it was the disastrous PASSION PLAY, and this year it's BUTTER.
While obviously better than PASSION PLAY (nothing, repeat- NOTHING is as bad as that film), BUTTER is still shockingly dismal failure. The initial word out of Telluride seemed to be positive, but having finally seen it for myself, I assume this must be studio spin (BUTTER is one of the Weinstein Co., big Oscar hopefuls for the year). There's always the off-chance that I'm totally out of synch with the other critics, but the reaction at the press screening I saw this at this morning seemed to be noxious.
What makes BUTTER so bad is that it aspires to be this deeply lacerating satire of conservative America, but simply doesn't have the teeth to be effective or even remotely amusing. Jennifer Garner's character, Laura, is obviously supposed to be a Michelle Bachman/ Sarah Palin caricature, but they fail on two fronts with her. For one, Garner simply isn't funny- ever. I like her as a serious actress (she was terrific on ALIAS, and in JUNO & THE KINGDOM), but comedy really isn't her forte, despite Hollywood's insistence of shoving her down out throats in these types of roles. Basically, imagine the annoying character she played in the ARTHUR remake, but made the lead and you have an idea of how insufferable she is here.
The second problem with her character is that, in a wimpy move, director Jim Field Smith (or more likely producer Harvey Weinstein) plays it safe- never allowing Laura to get too sinister. To be fair, this is an ambitious second feature for Smith, coming off the fairly good SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE, but ironically, he seems to be totally out of his league here. It's just a mess, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out large chunks of the film were re-shot to make it more mainstream-friendly, as it's one of the most schizophrenic films I've seen in a while. At times, they seem to be going for the jugular, but at other times this is so candy-coated and saccharine that it could have been directed by Garry Marshall. The cuddly ending is a particularly bad example of this, and by this point whatever meager edge the film had goes right out the window.
The supporting cast fares a little better than Garner, with Olivia Wilde showing some surprising comic chops as the resourceful stripper who, in an effort to get even with Laura, seduces her horny teenage step-daughter (Ashley Greene). She also befriends the ten-year-old Destiny, played by a scene-stealing Yara Shahidi, who’s taken in by the only two adult characters in the movie that aren`t portrayed as caricatures, Rob Corddry (dialing it down big-time) and Alicia Silverstone (where has she been???).
Hugh Jackman also has a tiny, useless supporting part as Laura's old high-school beau, who helps her sabotage young Destiny's butter sculptures. I'm sure Jackman had a blast playing the role, but, like Garner, he's not a naturally funny guy, and both roles probably should have been portrayed by actors with better comedic chops (it seems much harder for a serious actor to do comedy than vice-versa).
BUTTER really does strike me as the fiasco of the Toronto International Film Fest, with it being a remarkably bland attempt at satire. Any thoughts of it being an award contender strike me as laughable, unless, of course, I'm way off in my critique. However, I truly think this is an awful film, and for me, probably the only really bad film I've seen at the fest so far.
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