Not since “Last Tango in Paris” has butter been so subversive onscreen as it is in the hypocrisy-skewering, dairy-carving comedy “Butter,” a wicked Midwest satire with razor blades stashed beneath its bright candy-apple surface. Bound to alienate as many as it endears, this highly stylized, mean-streak send-up may not be to everybody’s taste, but there can be no doubt it heralds the arrival of a talented new voice in first-time screenwriter Jason Micallef — and the best bigscreen use of Jennifer Garner’s comedy gifts since “13 Going on 30.” Pic’s only obstacle to blue-ribbon B.O. is its decidedly R-rated sensibility.
Taking a page from Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth” in particular), Micallef plants a political caricature smack dab in the middle of flyover country — in this case, lovely, land-locked Iowa — half-embracing, half-eviscerating the folksy local culture in the process. Featuring personalities eccentric enough to topline a Christopher Guest comedy, his script (which earned a 2008 Nicholl Fellowship) centers around a married couple fully committed to the art of competitive butter carving, and whose dreams begin to melt the minute an 11-year-old prodigy arrives on the scene.
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Bob Pickler (“Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell) is the Michelangelo of margarine, outdoing himself for 15 years straight in the state’s annual condiment-sculpting contest; his dearly beloved Laura (Garner) is a frigid control freak, the sort of ambitious social climber who sends other trophy wives running in fear. She sees Bob’s butter-carving abilities as the key to public office and doesn’t take kindly to the judges’ suggestion that he should step aside and give someone else a chance.
Conveniently enough, Bob retires just as Destiny knocks. An 11-year-old black girl (Yara Shahidi) who’s been passed from one foster home to the next in search of a couple willing to adopt her, Destiny is quite possibly the least plausible preteen character since “Fred” hit YouTube, and yet she gets away with saying things like, “White people are weirdos” and “Are these crackers for real?” since Shahidi is just so darn adorable.
Where Destiny learned to carve butter is anybody’s guess, but the kid’s a natural, and she poses a real threat to Laura’s back-up plan: If Bob can’t compete, then it’s up to her to take up the trowel and keep the Picklers’ winning streak going. Apart from maybe Sandra Bullock, it’s hard to imagine any actress having as much fun with the character as Garner does, projecting the will-stop-at-nothing determination of “Election’s” Tracy Flick roughly 20 years forward — or maybe Michele Bachmann 20 years ago (costume designer Susie DeSanto clearly had the Tea Party star in mind when fashioning Laura’s wardrobe).
Behind every one of Laura’s half-smiles is a meltdown waiting to happen. The first time she snaps is a real humdinger, as Laura smashes her SUV into the minivan where Bob dimwittedly opted to shag his go-to stripper, Brooke (Olivia Wilde). In a film brimming with hilarious cameos, Wilde nearly steals the movie, playing into the reliable comedy tradition that there’s nothing more embarrassing than a hooker who refuses to blend in.
To get back at Laura, Brooke throws her hat in the ring, where “The Office’s” Phyllis Smith emcees and helium-voiced Kristen Schaal offers her best kitten carving. Although many of the laughs come at the direct expense of certain all-American character types (Hugh Jackman’s car dealer is another standout), “Butter” is not without its genuine, even bittersweet emotional moments. The film’s single best scene is an ad-libbed pep talk between Destiny and her latest foster dad (Rob Corddry), and her final butter carving will have some auds blubbering.
Pulling all these disparate tones together is young British director Jim Field Smith, whose second feature (after “She’s Out of My League”) looks more polished than most studio comedies. Smith doesn’t seem too worried about authenticity issues, inventing a whimsically faux-heartland feel on location in Louisiana. With him, both parody and pathos are in the details, which calls for inspired contributions from every department, especially costume design, set decoration and props (such as Destiny’s macaroni-art portrait of foster mom Alicia Silverstone).
And then there are the butter sculptures themselves: masterpieces of calculated absurdity that just begin to scratch the surface of how elaborate such carvings can be in real life. Smith’s trick is to leave good taste at the door, a strategy that applies to nearly everything that comes out of Laura’s mouth as well. In another helmer’s hands, “Butter” might have been a dark comedy; here, the humor is twisted but the world is bright as can be. Conservatives and liberals alike take a licking, and yet the art of butter carving emerges unscathed.