In Butter, an attempted satire on Middle American mores, Jennifer Garner plays Laura Pickler, an uptight, far-right, Iowan ego monster who implodes when it looks like she may lose a local butter sculpting contest to a young African-American girl (Yara Shahidi). There are presently commentators up in arms over the similarities to Michele Bachmann. Nevermind that Pickler’s husband (Ty Burrell) lusts over women or that she doesn’t engage in political maneuvering until the film’s coda. And forget that Bachmann is essentially a living parody—not a very witty one at that—of every smartly concealed conservative impulse.
The real issue is using Bachmann at all, not because it’s mean or divisive. (Who genuinely admires Bachmann besides extremists?) It’s that it’s easy and endemic of the screenplay’s habit of merely name-dropping or presenting familiar parts of today’s socio-political landscape. Pickler is comprised entirely of talking points: She crows that America is “the best,” frets over “the liberal media” and drops a claim that her opponent, working on an ode to Harriet Tubman, is “playing the race card.” Elsewhere, there are jokes about home schooling, Christianity, sincere plows through The Secret and other totems of modern Americana. Don’t worry, those worried that this is a case of Blue State elitists mocking Red State hoi polloi: The only character treated with any real scorn is Pickler. Everyone else soon proves pretty nice, and even Pickler gets a disingenuous 11th-hour revelation of humanity.
Butter is in no way special, but it does serve to remind viewers—along with other recent witless blunders like Salvation Boulevard—of the sad state of contemporary American satirical filmmaking. In the 1970s, Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie routinely took America’s temperature and found, in films like Nashville and Smile, that the majority of the population had been swindled by grand delusions and higher societal powers. They were also funny and pulled few punches. The main problem with Butter, apart from its lack of funny, is how nice it is. After a couple of lame jokes at Midwestern expense, it puts on kid gloves and even eventually assumes the audience wants to care about the caricatures it has presented us. If you’ve hired Rob Corddry to deliver a soapy monologue about how he and his wife (Alicia Silverstone!) can’t procreate, you’re doing it wrong.
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely