Every now and then, I glanced from side to side, wondering if my fellow New York critics and I were being surreptitiously recorded while we watched the movie "Butter" in a Midtown screening room. My paranoia was stoked because this comically mean-spirited, if also incongruously sappy, take-down of Middle America felt like a trap -- one meant to catch presumed East Coast liberals scornfully guffawing at silly stereotypes of the simple prairie folk whom conservative politicians love so much (at least around election time).
If the movie, from director Jim Field Smith and writer Jason A. Micallef, were funnier, its overt smugness might be less aggravating. But the laughs rarely come, which means that "Butter" eventually becomes the cinematic equivalent of the condescending dinner party blowhard who makes everyone else want to head home early.
Still, while Smith and Micallef have produced a dimwitted mess, the movie’s brilliantly persuasive casting director merits some type of praise for at least one jaw-dropping accomplishment. Through means, I am sure, only a Hollywood agent could understand, she managed to lure a bunch of heretofore smart actors into participating in a lame satire about a deranged, Sarah Palin-esque Iowa hausfrau’s attempt to best an adorable African American orphan at competitive butter carving. Though I entered the screening room with an open mind about this offbeat premise, I left thoroughly underwhelmed and annoyed.
In the lead role of sour-faced harpy and would-be smiter of foundlings, Laura Pickler (yes, I suspect this name is meant to be clever Dickensian wordplay), Jennifer Garner seeks to do considerable damage to her good-girl image. But, unfortunately, she does not possess the Tracy Ullman-like comedic chops it would take to transform her overdrawn character into anything more than tiresome.
Garner is flanked by the much better Ty Burrell, as Laura’s sweety-pie husband Bob, a milk-fat-sculpting savant who, despite being the Iowa State Fair’s reigning butter-carving champion and a local legend, is now, inexplicably, barred from defending his title. Maybe the organizers just wanted to spread (ba-da-bump!) the glory around.
Strangely, however, although it looks difficult, apparently turning a liquefiable substance into fantastic tableaux is akin to learning how to ride a bike, since Laura is able to almost match her husband’s abilities after a quick montage of self-instruction. Or perhaps the obvious explanation is also the correct one: lazy screenwriting.
To occupy the new free time he does not want to spend with his artistically reborn wife, Bob turns to the pricey affections of a local stripper (Olivia Wilde), who also moonlights as a blackmailing hooker. Being unaccustomed to the social expectations of trashy lovin’, the naïve Bob is surprised when the supple young lady shows up on his front lawn one night looking for rent money.
As in the recently released "Goats," Burrell proves he has a knack for rising above shoddy material, a quality he shares with the equally adept Wilde. Separately, both actors are welcome sights, but especially in their scenes together, they provide much-needed respites from the surrounding dreck by demonstrating that solid timing can brighten even the stalest jokes.
Another ray of light comes from Yara Shahidi, as Destiny, the butter-carving prodigy who goes toe-to-toe with Laura. Like her character, Shahidi thrives in an adult world, giving her lines much more credibility than they deserve.
A precious font of hardscrabble wisdom, Destiny shuttles from one ridiculous foster home to another, before finally winding up with Ethan and Julie Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), the whitest of white-bread couples. Although they want to heap trendy care and nurturing upon Destiny, the Emmets also voice reservations about her interest in butter carving, which they both regard as a decidedly hickish pursuit.
Corddry and fellow "Daily Show"-veteran Kristen Schaal, as a bumbling yokel, are wasted in parts that do not require their ample talents, while Silverstone’s presence is a stark reminder that "Clueless" premiered 17 years ago, and time passes much too quickly.
Surprisingly, on the failing end of the thespian grading curve is Hugh Jackman, who makes an embarrassing super-cameo as Boyd Bolton, a cowboy car salesman and pathetic simpleton. Carrying an old torch for Laura, his high-school sweetheart, Bolton puts himself at her beck and call for myriad evil deeds, all aimed at Destiny’s downfall. Jackman may have a decent acting range, but, given his clear physical attributes, it simply does not include desperate and dopey. We should all be so lucky!
Perhaps Jackman, Garner et al. thought they were participating in a sophisticated Christopher Guest-style farce, in which they would be, at some level, celebrating the people at whom they were poking fun. If so, they were either mistaken or misled, since Smith and Micallef only accord their treacly respect to Destiny and the Emmets, while heaping undue scorn upon everyone else. And, needless to note, when liberals start feeling sorry for a character meant to remind them of Sarah Palin, you know the filmmakers have gone too far.