Living in Johnson County, Iowa, the Picklers have always been the envy of the Great State's butter carving world. Rob Pickler (Ty Burrell) has been a great butter carver for 15 years, and when he's being forced out of the competition for winning it 15 times in a row, his ambitious wife Kelly (Jennifer Garner) decides to take up butter carving in his place. Just at the same time, Rob is having an affair with stripper/prostitute Brooke (Olivia Wilde) who is trying to blackmail him financially for the payments he's lagging on from a rudely interrupted past appointment.
Of course, this year the butter carving scene is a little different: there is the magically-named Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a ten-year old black girl adopted by white parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone) who's also a butter carving prodigy, and probably the greatest threat to Kelly in attaining the throne of Butter Carving Queen this year. This year's butter carving competition may well turn into a popularity contest between the alpha white female and the underdog black girl. It doesn't take a genius to see the pretty obvious parallels to Hilary Clinton/Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. Though, having dumb used car salesman Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman) in her corner may just turn the game in Kelly's favour.
As said, this film really gives a lot of time to its women, even more than its men. Garner gets her best role in a while as a Midwestern Lady MacBeth: ambitious, conceited and genially ruthless. The sort of woman to feel deep down she deserves it all being tall, white and pretty, and sees the presence of a black girl who's her equal as playing the race card, and listens to Rhonda Byrne's new age self-improvement gobbledygook The Secret on audiobook. Also great are Wilde (who's generally half a good actress) as Brooke, erstwhile sweetheart Alicia Silverstone as Destiny's mom, and Kristen Schaal as a dorky amateur butter carver. Newcomer Yara Shahidi is cute and charismatic, and that's pretty much all her role needs.
Despite occasionally feeling overplotted to fill its runtime, the script is strongest when it skewers American politics through the allegory of a butter carving contest. Among the best examples are the preliminary elimination rounds of the contest, the speeches and subject matter of Destiny's and Kelly's carving are perfect mirrors of their personalities, with Kelly choosing to do a family prayer scene while Destiny does a statue of Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. Christian Values versus the Rhetoric of Freedom. The film also by extension digs at that yearning for respectability that constitutes such a large part of Midwestern identity, which is why the Iowa setting genuinely works. It's that yearning that stems from knowing you don't live in any of the country's centres of political, financial or cultural power, while still wanting to shine through any means possible. Even in an activity as absurd and of little practical use as butter sculpting.
Butter is a genial satire of modest ambition arrived just in time for this year's US election. It's not a great film and doesn’t try'to be, but when it wants to be effective, it more than does its job. And rare for a comedy, it resists the easy slapstick or scatology.