Butter (***)

Jennifer Garner is pretty terrific in ‘Butter’, a messy yet endearing comedy that also functions as a political satire of the 2008 Democratic Primaries. Jim Field Smith’s film has a number of small issues, but they’re surrounded by such a fun and likable atmosphere that it doesn’t keep you from enjoying the flick. Garner is tremendous, but everyone in the cast is game and turns in solid work, from Olivia Wilde, who’s better than she’s ever been, even if that’s not saying too much, to Hugh Jackman, with a top notch turn from young Yara Shahidi anchoring the entire thing. The political satire is sometimes a bit hit and miss, but the concept of using the competitive sport of butter carving and the politics surrounding that event is a novel idea and saves the movie from just picking on midwesterners for its political yucks. Smith’s direction is more mature than usual, and if the script from Jason A. Micallef is once in a while at odds with itself, the end result is still easy to enjoy. The film opens this weekend and I have no qualms with recommending it. I saw it and enjoyed it last month, and now that the embargo has lifted I can tell you exactly why. The movie may not be the Oscar player we thought last year, but it’s still a fun bit of satire and we’ll worth seeing.

Taking place in a small town in Iowa, the film focuses on the politics that go into the annual butter carving contest that the town holds. No one takes the contest more seriously than Laura Pickler (Garner), proud wife of the perpetual winner of the contest and local hero Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell). Laura has made this into a political career of sorts, with designs on Bob running for statewide office based on his popularity. Bob however is just tired of it all and announces that he’s retiring from the sport. Laura sees red at this announcement, and a huge fight in their home results in Bob heading to a strip club and engaging in a dalliance with a stripper/possible prostitute Brooke Swinkowski (Wilde), which then leads to her trying to blackmail Bob. Unwilling to see her life come to this, Laura announces that she’s going to be taking over for Bob and competing the following year. She’s not alone though, as young orphan Destiny (Yara Shahidi) has taken an interest in butter carving, and Brooke is entering as well, just to embarrass the Picklers. Destiny’s liberal parents Ethan Emmet (Rob Corddry) and Julie Emmet (Alicia Silverstone) encourage her, and the renegade young challenger may just be able to win this contest in Iowa, but not if Laura has anything to say about it. Any of you who see parallels to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, well…that’s not an accident.

I really liked Jennifer Garner here, enough that I’d be completely fine with an Oscar campaign being made for her. She’s not the most likely Best Actress nominee of the year, but in a weak field, it can’t hurt to try. Garner is satirizing small town politics and conservative thinking while also just playing an incredibly well realized character. The writing and direction certainly helped, but it’s to her credit that the performance is as good as it is and the highlight of the movie for me. Going toe to toe with her is young Yara Shahidi, who’s very good here as well. She’s not your average child actor, and I’m excited to see where her career goes. As a sort of Barack Obama stand in, Shahidi is really impressive. Ty Burrell is low key but effective as the emasculated Bob, while Olivia Wilde steals a number of scenes as the stripper Brooke. This is probably the best performance of her career to date. Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone are amusing in smaller roles, while Hugh Jackman has more or less a cameo as Laura’s ex, a man willing to help her win in not so subtle ways. Also in the cast we have Ashley Greene as the Pickler’s rebel daughter Kaitlen, along with the likes of Kristen Schaal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Phyllis Smith. The whole ensemble is good, but Garner is great.

Director Jim Field Smith impressed me with his previous film, the romantic comedy ‘She’s Out of My League’, but he ups his game here. He’s hindered here and there by an inconsistent tone, but he directs his cast with aplomb and manages to mostly keep a handle on the satire. This is a filmmaker with a future. Scribe Jason A. Micallef has written an amusing if messy story that works more often than it doesn’t. My main issue is that the film stops being funny for too longer during the third act, but it makes up for things with a nicely sharp pointed ending. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is very solid work all around.

By the time you’ve read this ‘Butter’ will now be playing in theaters, and it’s well worth seeing. Jennifer Garner is at the top of her game, but everyone in the ensemble cast is pulling their own weight. The direction and writing don’t have too much subtlety, but they’re effective and make their satirical points while still tickling the funny bone. If you were let down by the political satire of ‘The Campaign’ during this past summer, then ‘Butter’ could be much more up your alley. I know it’s my preferred film of the two. Give it a look and I think that you’ll like what you see!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!