I have a weakness for whimsical ensemble comedies that follow competitors in an offbeat subculture contest. I loved Best in Show, and though it’s been years since I saw it, I remember enjoying Blow Dry as well. But I just tried to watch Butter, a film that follows the (fictional) preparations for the annual competition to determine whose butter sculpture would be featured at the Iowa state fair. And it is terrible. I did finish it–usually I’ll shut off movies that are wasting my time, but I did enjoy watching some of the characters. Mostly I was waiting for it to all come together at the end, hoping some logic or purpose would be revealed for setting this mundane romp in the butter bowl of America.
On the surface, the film is held together with some flimsy red state/blue state politics: the competition comes down to religious, conservative, controlling Laura (who exhibits shades of Sarah Palin) and inspired, inspiring ten-year-old Destiny, a black child fostered by goofy but loving liberal white parents. It’s clear who we’re meant to root for. But the film undermines its own themes in a way that is not complex, merely confusing, particularly with its surprisingly conservative treatment of sex and race. Destiny’s spunky and astute observations about being black in a mostly white town at the film’s beginning are completely forgotten once she eases in her new home. The stock stripper character can’t seem to decide if she’s in Fatal Attraction or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, spending most of the film trying to retrieve her unpaid wages and then inexplicably investing them all in the service of publicly humiliating uptight Laura.
The rest of the cast includes a spineless and ineffectual husband, a whiny teenage daughter, Hugh Jackman (who must be wearing a prosthetic paunch), and a woman who wears stirrup pants. It’s clear that we’re supposed to be laughing at the residents of the town: they have weird taste in clothes, they talk to God, they carve butter. (It’s worth noting that in this movie, butter sculpture is subtractive, carved Michaelangelo-style from a block. Real-life butter sculpture starts by adding a great deal of butter onto an armature, as with clay). The humor is not gentle. It’s odd, because of the few moments where something like a point starts to emerge from the film, one is when Laura’s cheating husband watches her skillfully carve butter–a craft she only recently learned–and mansplains to her that artistry requires more than technical proficiency. Laura loses, we’re meant to understand, because she lacks heart. (The irony is clearly lost on the film.)
In the first round of competition, Jennifer Garner stands up and fumbles through the speech that’s meant to explain her sculpture’s theme. Her carving is a family of three–a wife, husband, and daughter–seated around the dinner table. Butter, she says, is at the center of the dinner table. This almost makes sense. But, nervous, she begins mixing metaphors, talking about the thread that holds the quilt together which also holds the family together, and without family there is no butter, and without butter there is no. . . . hm. She trails off, unsure of how to logically complete this statement.
The film doesn’t know either. The butter is just stage business, not a metaphor–not even a clunky metaphor. I could make up stories all day about what the butter is doing here. Butter is historically a sculptural medium used by white people to convey scenes of idealized pastoral Americana, triumphantly mastered by the daughter of an absent black mother. Butter is a perfect little brick of manufactured food, from which the process of production is entirely invisble in the film even though it takes place in dairy country. Butter is a hearth food, representing maternal nourishment and love. And so on. But the movie doesn’t tell or gesture at any of those stories; you have to carve them out yourself.