The publicity stunt recently whipped up for Butter at the Toronto Film Festival worked like a charm: By extending an “invitation” to Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to “co-host” an Iowa premiere of the political satire, Harvey Weinstein and company cleverly grabbed media headlines, employing impish Michael Moore-style tactics to stake out a political position that’s presumably catnip to the movie’s left-learning and/or Democratic base.
Mission accomplished! But that still leaves Butter to cut through, and for my vote, the movie has the backfiring effect of making its liberal core audience look just as smug, self-righteous, and condescending as conservative opposition insists it is. The dairy product in the title refers to a butter-carving competition that climaxes in a showdown between a pageant-pretty, small-minded, scheming, conservative heartland wife with the vinegar-y name of Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) and a talented, open-minded African-American foster child with the sweet, Beyoncé-like name of Destiny (Yara Shahidi). Any allusions to Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are strictly intentional, especially since Garner plays around with a Palinesque voice and accent. Of course, the movie wouldn’t exist without Best In Show, American Beauty, and Election to demonstrate how this kind of thing is done — much better. There’s more than a touch of Election‘s Tracy Flick in Mrs. Pickler’s tightly wound, perky/steely determination to get ahead, and not enough lessons learned from Best In Show on how to achieve a buoyant balance between mockery and affection.
Butter melts, I think, because British director Jim Field Smith and newcomer screenwriter Jason Micallef can’t or don’t care to distinguish the elements of audacity and satirical cleverness from those of mockery and crudeness. And when in doubt, they fall back on cheap “outrageousness” in speech and deed to prod the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever heard as much vulgar discussion of genitals as I have at the movies in this year’s festival. Butter adds to the conversation with the comments of a former beau of Laura’s (he owns a car dealership, so obviously he’s full of bull), a dim dupe she seduces in order to enlist him in as her accomplice in rigging the carving competition. Played pleased-as-punch by Hugh Jackman in a cowboy hat, this dumb ol’ boy gratuitously comments on the state of his old girlfriend’s current vagina. God bless America!
Butter fancies itself a movie that gets in your face, only to conclude, in Weinstein Company house-style, with an oily dollop of sentimentality. Representative Bachmann might do well to screen the thing for her followers as an example of everything she’s fighting against. She’d gain more support than that publicity stunt could have imagined.