Here and there for about 45 minutes, “Butter” has some really wickedly sharp laughs that stick, but ends up grinding its teeth with a butter knife until it’s all gums. Director Jim Field Smith (2010’s slight but likable “She’s Out of My League”) and first-time screenwriter Jason A. Micallef are clearly out of their league when it comes to making an effective small-town satire, mostly failing to blur the tricky line between mockery and affection. It’s almost as if the filmmakers shot all the scenes in order, starting the film off as a “cutthroat story of greed, sex, blackmail and butter” and then chickening out midway through to be more safely mainstream than edgy. They should’ve called Christopher Guest, who hasn’t put out a picture in six years.
Somewhere in the red state of Iowa, Laura Dean Pickler (Jennifer Garner) is an all-smiles, pearl-wearing, America-believing so-called survivor who prides herself on fighting tooth and nail through hard work and can-do attitude. For 15 years, her husband Bob (Ty Burrell) has been known for his butter-carved masterpieces, especially a life-size replica of The Last Supper that’s “better than the original,” and now she’s proud to be part of the “royal family of butter carving.” Then Laura’s life comes crashing down when a 10-year-old black girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who’s been passed around from family to family and finally ends up with a warm, super-nice couple (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry), thinks she’s good at nothing but proves to be an excellent artist and finds her niche in butter-carving. With the annual butter-carving contest right around the corner, Laura signs up, and it seems she has her work cut for her.
Crossed between Sarah Palin, a Stepford trophy wife, and Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick from 1999’s brilliant “Election,” Laura Dean Pickler is insufferable, barely human, and thus, pretty one-note. It’s fun to see Garner sink her teeth into a purely comedic role, but she mostly overplays an ugly, shrill caricature that wipes off her chirpy smile when she doesn’t get her way. When Laura discovers Bob (Burrell remaining likably dim as he does in TV’s “Modern Family”) has slept with a trashy, foulmouthed stripper/hooker named Brooke but works the pole as Tokyo Rose (Olivia Wilde), she goes barking mad. But Brooke, who comes knocking at the Pickler household for the $1,200 Bob still owes her, plans vengeance by signing up for the contest, and that really gets under prim and perky Laura’s skin. Meanwhile (or, to further muddle the focus), Laura’s high school-aged stepdaughter Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), who thinks she’s a freak and blocks out Laura and her dad with headphones, experiments a little lip-locking and more with the uninhibited Brooke.
Though Garner is the lead, the real comedic prize winner (perhaps because it’s so unexpected) is Wilde, who has fun playing a bad homewrecker and getting around on a bike. And yet, on Planet Earth, Brooke stopping at nothing to see Laura lose in the contest makes no sense at all. Greene is like the audience surrogate, until she unbelievably becomes smitten with Brooke and then disappears for the rest of the film. Hugh Jackman enters the story as Boyd Bolton, a doltish cowboy of a car salesman whom Laura pulls in to sabotage the contest, but despite a few laughs from him just going for it, the character is just one more stereotypical idiot. It’s the adorable Shahidi, as the wise-beyond-her-years Destiny (“White people are weirdos,” she realizes), who comes across like an actual human being. As Destiny’s foster parents, Silverstone is also likably earnest and Corddry seems straightjacketed here but, ironically, has more of a brain than anybody in the room. Also, in minor supporting roles, Kristen Schaal owns scenes with her oddball shtick as a kitten-loving carver, and Phyllis Smith, here as the contest’s host, is always worth a smile or two.
Cynical when it should be more cleverly biting, “Butter” wants to call out the liberals while poking fun at conservative all-Americans and their hypocrises (which nowadays, a month before Election 2012, seems like low-hanging fruit). Alas, the satire turns into a cruel, juvenile war, not unlike “Monster-in-Law” and “Bride Wars,” and then melts into bland, pat sentimentality to earn a round of applause. Director Smith at least gives his sophomore feature a peppy pace with a boppin’ soundtrack (including Passion Pit’s “Manners”), but when it’s all over, a subversive wannabe has played out. Without being aggressively unlikable, “Butter” won’t clog your arteries, but you can’t believe it’s not better.
90 min., rated R.