Jennifer Garner as Laura Pickler in the movie "Butter." (The Weinstein Company )
The art of sculpting huge blocks of fat is the focus of a strange-but-true competitive event at the Iowa State Fair. Wielding trowels with the utmost precision, carvers ply their craft in temperature-controlled booths.
In contrast, "Butter," which uses a local lead-up to that bout as the battleground setting for hit-and-miss comedy, has all the exactitude and rigor of unrefrigerated oleo. The would-be satire is nothing more than a bunch of sketch characters and jokes welded to a sentimental subplot.
Wavering between tepid celebration and ham-fisted ridicule of this slice of Americana, the movie is essentially as condescending as its main character. She's a ruthless, flag-waving xenophobe, well played by Jennifer Garner. With her tight-jawed smile, sweater sets and pearls, Garner's Laura Pickler is an obvious riff on the Palin-Bachmann school of ossified chirp.
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
Having enjoyed the cachet of her husband's longtime reign as Iowa's butter-carving champ, Laura doesn't take it well when easygoing Bob (Ty Burrell, of "Modern Family") agrees to retire his sculpting tools to make room for up-and-comers. So she steps into the competition, with all the graciousness of Lady Macbeth.
Laura is a character overripe for comeuppance, which Jason A. Micallef's screenplay delivers, none too subtly, in the form of a little girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi). A 10-year-old of preternatural self-possession with a knack for carving — and, it turns out, a Christ-like capacity for love, understanding and forgiveness — Destiny is Laura's chief rival in the local event.
She's also apparently the only African American for miles around and has understandably reached the conclusion that "white people are weird." Her new foster parents (Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry), though, test that theory with their kindness, relatively cosmopolitan open-mindedness and unwavering support, even if they can't quite get their heads around the whole dairy-product-as-art subculture.
PHOTOS: Celebrities by the Times
Neither, it seems, can the film, which compiles an assortment of sculpture subjects designed to provoke giggles: a horse-riding Newt Gingrich, "Schindler's List," the Last Supper, the Kennedy assassination (!). They're OK as standalone gags but combined take on a forced absurdity that's all over the map, much like the story. The material requires more flair than director Jim Field Smith ("She's Out of My League") musters with his flat sitcom style.
Micallef's debut screenplay, well regarded in Hollywood (it placed high on the Black List of unproduced scripts and won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Nicholl Fellowship) takes superficial swipes at hypocrisy. Laura is squeaky-clean in public and swears like a sailor in private — hardly the stuff of penetrating social observation.
An uncharacteristically lighthanded aside has the bent-on-success meanie listening to an audiobook of "The Secret" — a nice touch, even if the New Age slant doesn't jibe with her Middle American aura.
More than holding up the earnest side of this bifurcated story are the nuanced performances of Burrell, Corddry, Silverstone and Shahidi. Garner effectively accentuates Laura's ludicrousness, and on that front the film also benefits from turns by a typically goofy Kristen Schaal ("The Daily Show"); Hugh Jackman, as the dim-bulb ex Laura enlists to undermine Destiny; and especially Olivia Wilde, whose potentially home-wrecking stripper doesn't skimp on bad-girl rebellion.
Given the talent assembled for this diversion, you can't believe it's not better.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual content and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In limited release