The process of making butter is as violent as it is transformative. Fresh cream is churned and mashed until its very molecular core is inverted, surrendering to an existence as a shapeless reduction of what was once pure. The result is a common table condiment; easily overlooked and often maligned.
The butter carving competition of the Iowa State Fair challenges artists to find beauty within something ordinary and the endogenous strength of a fragile medium—to take an unformed mass of beaten cream and give it meaning.
The movie Butter has a few lackluster twists and turns, but the main storyline follows the similar transformation of Destiny, Laura Pickler and Brooke; three women who literally and figuratively find themselves in the Iowa State Fair butter carving competition.
Destiny is a ten year-old orphan who has been passed from house to house and state facility to state facility. Laura Pickler is a trophy wife, who simultaneously henpecks and stands in the shadow of her butter-carving-talent husband. Brooke is a stripper who has gotten too used to looking out for herself. Each of these characters use the challenge of the butter carving competition to elevate their condition morally, socially and spiritually, rising above their own limitations in their own unique ways.
That is, of course, if you squint REALLY hard. It’s akin to seeing Jesus in a slice of toast.
The script for Butter had been languishing in the third place spot of Leonard Franklin’s 2008 Blacklist of Hollywood’s most popular unproduced screenplays until Jennifer Garner’s production company swooped in and scooped it up. Then, it appears Mrs. Afleck called everyone that she knew to come in and spend a day or so reading one or two lines. It is an impressive cast. Seriously, nearly everyone in this movie is someone that you’ll recognize from something else… at least a C-lister in every slot.
However, it didn’t seem like anyone was really emotionally invested in making this movie, except for Jennifer Garner. You can tell that she’s worked really hard to create her character, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Laura seems loosely based on Sarah Palin, complete with political ambition, cuckolded husband and a strangely nonvernacular accent. It’s an overly aggressive parody that doesn’t even function in the heightened reality of this movie.
If you want to see what Butter should be—perhaps what it is trying to be, or maybe just what I’d prefer it to be—look no further than the effortless performances of Christopher Guest, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Their characters are less parody and more sincere interpretations that bring to light a natural absurdity.
I don’t mean to say that Butter is necessarily bad, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired when viewed in context of its own potential. This was a very popular script brought to the screen with a lot of money and comprising a lot of talented people. I don’t think that anyone bothered to look for the heart of the script, which resulted in a story with a very inconsistent, nearly schizophrenic tone.
In the end, Butter is a soulless conglomeration of ideas amassed to form a shapeless lump… like a skillful butter carving that got left out in the summer heat.
Extra features include deleted scenes and a gag reel that feels like it was required by the director rather than resultant of any on-set familial shennanigans. It would have been interesting to include a short documentary about butter carving, or the Iowa State Fair… or why this story is based in Iowa City but the establishing shots at times appear to have been filmed at Summerfest in Milwaukee.