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‘Butter’ Review: Spreads Too Thin on the Big Screen

This would-be political satire is weak enough that it might more aptly be called “Margarine.”

If you didn’t get a big enough serving of politics from Wednesday night's presidential debate, you can avail yourself of another helping by seeing “Butter,” though this would-be political satire is weak enough that it might more aptly be called “Margarine.”

The fitfully amusing movie derives its title from the butter-carving contest that its fiercely competitive protagonist, Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), is determined to win, no matter what. 

Laura lives in a small town in Iowa, where her milquetoast husband, Bob (Ty Burrell), has long reigned as the annual butter-carving contest champ at both the local and state level. We’re not just talking about making small figurines out of butter but rather giant, elaborate, lifelike sculptures shown off in refrigerated, four-sided glass display cases.

When the local contest runners tell Bob that it’s time to relinquish his title and let someone else compete, Laura decides she’s going to keep the title in the family. That her main competitor in the contest is an adorable, pint-sized black orphan (Yara Shahidi) newly arrived in town to live with her potential adoptive parents (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Coddry) deters Laura not even a whit.    

The obvious inspiration for much of “Butter,” and clearly for Garner’s performance, would seem to be mega-maverick pol, former Alaskan Governor and Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Garner, sometimes laying it on too thick, makes Laura seem all ferocious determination and self-confidence, a sort of manic cheerleader who’s not above tripping players on the opposing team.

The willing cast also includes Hugh Jackman, who turns up as a none-too-bright car salesman carrying a torch for Laura, and Olivia Wilde as a stripper bent on revenge.

Director Jim Field Smith (“She’s Out of My League”) and first-time screenwriter Jason A. Micallef never quite figure out a consistent tone for “Butter,” swinging between broad satire, excessive sentiment and small-town humor.

As a made-for movie on Showtime or HBO back when those channels were still in that business, this little project would have seemed about right. On the big movie screen, “Butter” is spread too thin.

(“Butter,” which has been kicking around on the festival circuit for a year, is opening on Friday for a limited theatrical run and will also be available nationwide on VOD.)