This is one of those little gems that seems to fly under the radar all too frequently. Released in 2011, this never saw a theatrical release in Australian cinemas and barely registered in American ones. It’s a real shame as it’s one of the sharpest, funniest and often nastiest film comedies I’ve seen in years.
Jennifer Garner, who also co-produced, plays her role as an archetype of the likes of Michelle Bachman – all presence public façade of niceness, but a dark, sinister undercurrent fueling the whole thing. The film’s pervasive theme – that underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque painting of middle American life there is a seedy underbelly, a foetid ugliness that belies the family values – has been explored any number times before, from American Beauty to the TV series Weeds. But there’s something rich, and sharply caustic about the world created by director Jim Field Smith from Jason Micallef’s very funny script (apparently a one-time member of the ‘blacklist’, the best un-produced screenplays doing the rounds in Hollywood).
Jennifer Garner is superb in this. She’s played tightly wound before (Juno), but where that character’s motivation was the construction of a preconceived perfect family unit, in Butter, her Laura Pickler is that fine balance of ruthless ambition and almost immeasurable fragility – determined to maintain the exterior façade of perfect Iowan home-life at any cost. Ty Burrel is also great as the browbeaten husband seeking some kind of solace in the company of a stripper/hooker. Olivia Wilde is fantastic and hilarious in that role. Yara Shahidi owns the film as the 10 year old butter sculpting savant Destiny. Her line deliveries and comic timing are flawless. I’m also first in line to see anything with Kristen Schaal in it. The woman is a comedic genius (and the star of the best thing I ever saw at MICF). Hugh Jackman plays a horny idiot well, too.
Few films of late seem to be willing to swim against the tide, open up our eyes to what’s under the surface. It’s a film that while it may wear its pseudo-leftist ideology on its sleeve (in that the only two adult characters who aren’t twisted, two-faced or warped are the secular progressive couple who think butter sculpting’s all a bit ‘redneck’), it’s one which finds a sympathetic eye for almost all of its characters and paints a portrait of modern American society that is seldom seen.