Butter, a quirky comedy starring Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell, Olivia Wilde, and Hugh Jackman that premieres next week at the Toronto International Film Festival, was always destined to garner attention — it’s a high-profile movie about competitive butter carving!
But the film is about to spark a whole lot more conversation. According to director Jim Field Smith (She’s Out of My League), Butter is not just an offbeat tale, but a political satire of the 2008 Democratic presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
“There are two stories really,” explained Smith to EW over the phone in August. “There’s the story that is the outward plot of the movie, which is of a very ambitious Midwestern housewife [Laura Pickler, played by Jennifer Garner] whose husband [Bob Pickler, Ty Burrell] has been the butter carving champion for 15 years.” Basically, when Mr. Pickler is asked to stop competing by a committee at the Iowa State Fair, so as to give some new blood a chance at winning, Laura is offended. Smith says, “She genuinely believes that her husband is a rock star and she is the glamorous wife. So, when he’s asked to retire, she perceives that as, ‘Well, they’re pushing us out of the way, and they can’t do this to us,’ so she decides that she’s going to enter the competition herself.”
With no prior experience in butter carving at all, Mrs. Pickler decides that she’s going to take the sculpting tools into her own hands. “She enters the competition, and when she goes to sign up, she finds herself signing up at the same time as this 10 year-old black orphan girl [Destiny, played by Yara Shahidi], who is prodigiously talented,” the director explains. Destiny and Laura quickly become intense butter-carving rivals.
“When you start to peel away the layers of the movie, you realize that there’s a lot of political metaphor to the movie,” continues Smith. “Bill Clinton was this much-loved president, who maybe was not so discreet with his sexual love, and Hillary stood in the shadows very quietly supporting him. After his two terms were up, there was a sense of Hillary saying, ‘My turn now.’
“And then, the year she runs for president, Barack Obama, this young upstart, comes along, and there’s a sense of Hillary being like, ‘Really?’ That was very much the metaphor that Jason Micallef was aiming for when he wrote the script originally. Obviously, there’s some fairly unsubtle links to the fact that the movie is set in Iowa.” (For those of you who avoid politics, the Iowa State Fair, where Butter actually filmed for one week during 2010, has become a major political stomping ground for presidential hopefuls seeking support in the Iowa caucuses.)
Smith was quick to add that the film is not any sort of angry, pointed satire, and that even without any focus on the political subtext, Butter functions as a goofy comedy. Well, color us intrigued!