Posted by: gdevi | January 15, 2013

Movie review: Butter (2011)

The English director Jim Field Smith’s hugely entertaining movie Butter  does for Iowa what Bernie did for Texas. This funny movie mildly and gently satirizes some of the holy-cow Midwestern institutions such as reputations gained and lost at county agricultural fairs, the corn queen and the dairy princess, the quiet, mild-mannered men, the ambitious social-climbing wives, adolescents with angst, the car salesmen with the teeth and the hair, mild racism, and strippers hidden in full view.  There is that “wanna-be” feeling that you see in Sarah Palin, for instance, that this movie captures accurately.

The plot revolves around the annual Butter Sculpting Competition, a prestigious social event for Johnson county, where the action takes place.  For 15 years, this competition has been a slam-dunk win for Bob Pickler , the town’s master butter sculptor, wonderfully, wonderfully acted by Ty Burrell. Ty Burrell has that genial comportment of a man who is good at some one thing, does not really believe in many things, and is generally afraid of doing anything. Ty Burrell plays him with his trademark deadpan delivery. It is just beautiful. The movie opens with the the community felicitating Bob over his years of butter sculpting achievements including butter sculptures of his first cow, Teddy Roosevelt on his horse, Neil Armstrong, the astronaut, cow and calf, Janis Joplin with her guitar, Schindler’s List, and a butter sculpture of the Last Supper of Christ and the disciples, which the Des Moines Register called “better than the original.” Bob is married to Laura Pickler, the antagonist of the story, a shallow, social-climber beautifully, beautifully played by Jennifer Garner, who hopes to take her husband’s social standing and reputation in butter sculpting and turn that into a chance to run for political office; governor of Iowa first, and eventually the president of the United States. She wants to be first lady of something. Jennifer Garner is absolutely fantastic in this role. I can’t help it if I am tall, skinny and pretty, Laura tells herself preening herself in the mirror. She already wears the silk sheath dresses and tailored suits with the three-strand of pearls and white elbow gloves to the county fair. But underneath it all, she is extremely foul-mouthed and crude. Though she is using Bob’s social reputation to run for political office, she also despises him; he is not the full man of action that she wants. He is not ambitious enough. And as she reminds him he did not inherit a full car dealership like her old boyfriend Boyd Bolton from back in high school did. That would have been a better marriage, she reminds him. Bob listens to everything.  They have a teenage daughter, Kaitlin, also wonderfully played in this ensemble cast by Ashley Greene, full of contempt for her parents, bored with this “stupid” place.  Everything is “stupid” to Kaitlin; the perennial adolescent whine.

After the felicitation, Bob is asked by the Butter Sculpting officials to retire; as long as he competes, nobody else can win. Make way for some new butter sculptors. Bob, being Bob, agrees, which ticks off Laura who suddenly sees her visions of political office flying out the window. Neither of them have any other credentials other than Bob’s butter sculpting ones. The rest of the movie is about Laura entering the contest alone and doing all kinds of corrupt things to win the contest with the help of the old boyfriend, Boyd Bolton, the car dealer, played with the right amount of creepiness by Hugh Jackman. After he has sex with Laura, when Laura comes back to get his help in planning her butter sculpting coup, he actually thanks God for sending her back his way to have sex with her, once again. He also cannot spell or read. For instance, the part where he gives false testimony to the officials– he is reading off of a note hidden inside his cowboy hat — he stumbles across the word “conscience.” He cannot read it and finally after many tries, reads it as “con” + “science.”  Very funny screenplay.

Laura’s adversary in the butter sculpting competition is a ten -year old sculpting phenomenon, an orphaned African-American girl, Destiny, wonderfully and memorably played by the young actress Yara Shahidi, passed around from foster home to foster home and who quite fortuitously ends up in Iowa City. This movie has a fantastic screenplay with every character in this ensemble cast so essentially defined that we get to see these folks as real people. For instance, Rob Corddry (from the Colbert Report) and Alicia Silverstone are just terrific as Destiny’s loving and caring foster and later real adoptive parents. Just a lovely performance from both Corddry and Silverstone.  The young Yara Shahidi is a natural actress; she plays a sweet and in many ways precocious and good-natured little girl who refuses to let the largely adult world that has let her down diminish her sense of who she is. Similarly, Olivia Wilde gives a very funny and memorable performance as Brooke, the stripper to whom Bob goes when he is sufficiently harassed by Laura for being unambitious and ineffective.

Laura and the boyfriend Boyd commit all kinds of creepy things to throw the little girl Destiny off from winning the competition. But since this is a comedy, they are exposed for who they are, and Destiny wins the competition. The movie ends with Laura declaring that she will be running for the governor of Iowa since she heard God asking her to do so. Well, if God can ask Sarah Palin to run for office in Alaska, why should he let Iowa off the hook?

This is a very very funny movie, smartly written and directed, and with great performances all round.  Every performance is just pitch perfect, including the minor actors playing the regular townspeople exasperated by Laura’s temper tantrums. I loved Phyllis Smith, who played Nancy, the secretary of the butter sculpting federation, and Kristen Schaal as Carol Ann-Stevenson of the Bob Pickler fan club. Wonderful performances.  Great screenplay by Jason Micallef and totally sweet directing by Jim Field Smith. See it, if you haven’t.

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