Deadline‘s Pete Hammond wrote early this morning that Jim Field Smith‘s Butter “played like gangbusters at its first packed screening at [Telluride’s] Galaxy theatre” and that “there were big laughs for the small-town, butter-carving satire.”
Butter star-producer Jennifer Garner, director Jim Field Smith prior to last night’s screening.
I would politely dispute that account as I was in the same theatre. There were certainly laughs from time to time (even I guffawed five or six times) but my general impression was that audience energy levels eventually turned flat. Because after the first 25 or 30 minutes it was clear that the filmmakers weren’t interested in investing any real human truth or honest emotional underpinnings to any of the characters — with one or two exceptions they’re all playing exaggerated satirical types. And worked-out, semi-logical motivations are few and far between. And so the audience was going, I inferred, “Okay, this is ‘funny’ from time to time but it’s not really delivering.”
I would love to have fun with a smart comedy that skewers Middle America and Jennifer Garner‘s Michelle Bachmann-like character, but Butter is sloppily written and poorly motivated and simply not a class act.
Garner’s rightwing bitch is so shrill and constipated and borderline psychopathic that it’s impossible to laugh at or with her after the first half-hour or so. Yara Shahidi , a 10-year-old African-American girl who plays the instigating lead, is the one uncompromised bright note, and is obviously pretty and appealing. Ty Burrell, playing Garner’s hapless, low-key husband, is okay for the most part. But Olivia Wilde‘s stripper character and Hugh Jackman ‘s car-salesman doofus are written too crudely and illogically.
Comedies have to be funny, obviously, but they never work unless they’ve been written and constructed like drama. Once you say, “Oh, we’re just making a ‘comedy’ so we can goof off and make fun of this and that and throw reality out the window,” you’re finished.
Butter was being compared last night to Michael Ritchie‘s Smile (’75), an admired satire about a teenaged beauty competition in Santa Rosa. Forget it, nowhere near, not even close. Hammond mentioned Alexander Payne‘s Election as another similarity. No way in hell — Butter isn’t remotely in the same league. I tweeted last night that Butter “is not, repeat NOT, the new Little Miss Sunshine, as some have suggested. Michael Arndt‘s Oscar-winning Sunshine script is heads and shoulders above.”
My first tweet, posted 30 minutes after the screening broke: “Why did the Telluride Film Festival, a mecca for quality, screen a socio-political satire as thin, silly and haphazardly written as Butter?”
Hammond reports that the film “may get a year end release from the Weinstein Company to qualify for awards, especially Golden Globes.” That’s a code term, that last clause.