An annual butter-carving contest in the grand ol' red state of Iowa sounds like it could be prime fodder for a biting satire in the vein of 1999's Alexander Payne gem "Election
," but "Butter" is more tone-deaf than on-target. Director Ben Field Smith (2010's "She's Out of My League
") and screenwriter Jason A. Micallef deliver would-be funny quipsThe Des Moines Register
proclaims a "Last Supper" replica made of butter as, "Better than the original!"but their comic timing is off and jokes tend to slip by without sticking the landing. Likewise, the ensemble cast is a bright one, but few of the characters ever break free from stereotyping and subplots that go nowhere.
When new contest rules stipulate that reigning butter-carving champ Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) can no longer compete, power-hungry, ball-busting wife Laura (Jennifer Garner) decides to take his place as a contestant. Also in the running: the sweetly naïve Carol-Ann Stevenson (Kristen Schaal); acidic, money-grubbing stripper Brooke Swinkowski (Olivia Wilde), intent on settling a personal score with the Picklers; and 11-year-old orphan Destiny (Yara Shahidi), just recently adopted by caring, supportive couple Jill (Alicia Silverstone) and Ethan (Rob Corddry) after a long line of terrible foster parents. On her track to victory, Laura will do whatever it takes to get ahead, even if that means trading sex for favors with hair-brained car dealer Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman) and sabotaging the competition.
"Butter" is pleasant despite being awfully slight and rather mean-spiritedproof that this material might have made a far better picture with a smarter, more controlled voice. For every gag that does work, such as the sight of the contestants walking back and forth through an empty roped-off line to sign up for the competition, there are plenty that fall flat even when they should hit the bull's-eye (Laura's inflammatorily bad-taste piece she makes during the finals, which will go unmentioned). Used to playing nice girls, Jennifer Garner (2012's "The Odd Life of Timothy Green
") gets out her claws to portray Laura Pickler, for all intents and purposes a terrible person. Third-act attempts to humanize her come too late and aren't particularly convincing. Olivia Wilde (2012's "People Like Us
") digs caustically into Brooke, but her part, and a story turn that finds her sleeping with Bob's lesbian teenage daughter Kaitlen (Ashley Greene), seems to be from a different film. Only Yara Shahidi (2009's "Imagine That
"), forthright and level-headed as young Destiny, and Alicia Silverstone (2011's "The Art of Getting By
") and Rob Corddry (2012's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
"), likable as adoptive parents Jill and Ethan, seem to have any sense. They're surrounded by a bunch of rich snoots and crazy people, none of them half as amusing as "Butter" would like them to be.