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‘Butter’ movie goes for Midwest flavor but lays it on too thick

LaurPickler (Jennifer Garner) goes for gold 'Butter.'

Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner) goes for the gold in "Butter."

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Laura Jennifer Garner

Destiny Yara Shahidi

Bob Ty Burrell

Brooke Olivia Wilde

Radius/TWC presents a film directed by Jim Field Smith. Written by Jason A. Micallef. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for language and sexual content). Opening Friday at Village Crossing Skokie and South Barrington.

Updated: November 6, 2012 6:17AM

The ensemble comedy “Butter” aims for the Christopher Guest model of eccentric people caring way too much about an inconsequential pursuit — in this case, a butter-carving contest in Iowa. The Guest movies (“Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” etc.) imbue their players with so much novel personality and backstory that their ludicrous lives have cred, a sort of plausible implausibility. Unlike those films, however, “Butter” lacks fully defined characters; they’re overpowering yet as thin as what’s in the little tub by the lobster.

Jennifer Garner plays the central figure, Laura Pickler, who has hounded her milquetoast husband, Bob (Ty Burrell), into a lengthy winning streak in the annual dairy derby. When he’s asked to step aside to open up the contest to others, she’s enraged and sets out to learn the art and win the sculpting title herself. Meanwhile, frustrated Bob blows off steam with a stripper (Olivia Wilde), who starts stalking his family, first for the money for carnal services rendered, then for takedown of the judgmental Laura.

Competition for the butter prize comes unexpectedly from 10-year-old prodigy Destiny (Yara Shahidi), newly taken in by doting foster parents (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone). To Laura, Destiny is an obstacle to be vanquished by any means, be they unfounded racial claims or just plain cheating.

Salted with sex and raw language, “Butter” goes for Midwestern flavor and sometimes succeeds, at one point presenting the contest bosses in a homey vignette watching “Deal or No Deal” on afghan-covered recliners. But more often its vision of heartland life seems condescending and cartoony. “Shh — we’re in a Moose Lodge!” Laura barks, as though that’s somehow sacred. And she’s among many characters turning to prayer in mostly selfish ways, because that’s what hicks apparently do.

Amid many grounded performances (especially from the gentle, straight-talking Shahidi), Garner sticks out by playing Laura as pure caricature — shrill, humorless and obsessive. No one in this Iowa town shares Laura’s accent, a thick Midwestern twang borrowed from “Fargo.” Or perhaps from Sarah Palin, an obvious inspiration for the politically driven supermom hung up on the region-specific hobbies of her personal heartland.

For that matter, Hugh Jackman seems to be channeling Dubya as Laura’s cowboy-hatted high school flame, Boyd. It all makes “Butter” come off as a cheap satire on red-state rubes, as they’re perceived by foreigners (say, director Jim Field Smith, a Brit) or the West Coast elite. (When executive producer Harvey Weinstein introduced “Butter” a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival, he did so with a statement sneering at Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party.)

The movie is most appealing in the carving scenes, which make one yearn to see these techniques demonstrated by real people in a documentary instead of these approximations of humans. What “Butter” is churning isn’t the rich, sweet product you crave. It’s just a country crock.

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