‘Butter’’ dearly wants to be a hot-button social satire that plays rough with sacred cows: Midwestern power-moms, the religious right, race, sex, you name it. Mostly, it wants to be an Alexander Payne movie from the 1990s. “Citizen Ruth,’’ say, or “Election.’’
Instead, it’s a shrill, cartoonish mess — not a total disaster, but no one’s idea of a good movie. The setting is the high-pressure world of competitive butter sculpting, which apparently is an actual craft practiced at state fairs across the country. Here it’s used like the dog show in “Best in Show’’ and the beauty pageant in “Little Miss Sunshine,’’ as a way to poke fun at our all-American hypocrisies.
OK, fine. But the main character in “Butter,’’ a politically ambitious, God-fearing Iowa housewife named Laura Pickler, is played by Jennifer Garner (who co-produced) as a one-note caricature. With her pearls and red dresses and rictus grin, Laura’s a swipe at Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin that may be deserved but hardly deserves to be this easy.
Her pushover of a husband, Bob (Ty Burrell), has been the state butter champ for years — a life-size replica of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper’’ is his claim to fame — but after he agrees to retire to allow for new blood, Laura enters on her own, visions of the governor’s office dancing in her tiny head. Her rivals include a calmly gifted 10-year-old African-American foster child named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) and Brooke Swinkowski (Olivia Wilde), a foul-mouthed stripper who wants the $600 Bob owes her for a night of carnal bliss. She also wants to bring Laura down, just for the fun of it.
Throw in a jaded lesbian stepdaughter (Ashley Greene of the “Twilight’’ movies) and Hugh Jackman as a dense cowboy stud of a car salesman, and you have the makings of either a decent farce or a freeway pileup. “Butter’’ opts for the latter. What can you say about a movie where wildcat comedian Rob Corddry (“Hot Tub Time Machine’’) gives the most nuanced, sympathetic performance as Destiny’s level-headed foster dad? (Alicia Silverstone plays his wife.)
Director Jim Field Smith has made one previous feature, the strained 2010 romantic comedy “She’s Out of My League,’’ and with this film and this cast, he is. The script by Jason Micallef aims for controversy but satire needs to be built on believable characterizations and situations, and no one here behaves in ways that make any sense. The racial gibes fall flat, the political darts miss the target, the dialogue zingers have the edge of a butter knife.
Worse is the sense that all involved are congratulating themselves on their daring while looking down on those folks who actually live in flyover country. It may play to audiences who like their satire cynical and safe, but the aftertaste of “Butter’’ is rancid.