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A politically savvy white woman with a Midwestern accent, a love of state fairs and a sense of entitlement goes up against a talented black upstart who comes out of nowhere to shake a traditional establishment to its very core.
The synopsis of Butter might sound familiar, but producer-star Jennifer Garner swears that her little indie comedy wasn’t designed to satirize the 2008 presidential election or the midterm rise of the Tea Party and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. That said, she doesn’t mind viewers making the connection, or executive producer/publicity maestro Harvey Weinstein’s efforts to use this November’s political death match as a platform to promote the Radius-TWC released film.
It started in September 2011; the movie, in which Garner stars as the no-nonsense, politically ambitious wife of a legendary butter sculptor (Ty Burrell), premiered at the Telluride Film Festival before making its way to Toronto. There, Weinstein issued a statement offering Bachmann — then a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination — the opportunity to co-host the premiere in Iowa.
Fast-forward a year later, and Butter is days away from finally hitting theaters. Still no RSVP from Bachmann, though Garner — whose performance recalls a mix of the congresswoman and Sarah Palin, even if unintentional — isn’t afraid of meeting her.
“If [Bachmann] wanted to come,” Garner told THR, referring to the New York premiere of the film last week, “we would be thrilled. That would be awesome. I would be so happy to meet her. She’s a really interesting person.”
That’s the kind of diplomatic tightrope Garner has had to walk in the 2 1/2 years since the film wrapped.
Her character, Laura Pickler, is a social and political climber determined to make the jump from state fair to governor’s mansion, and she comes off as particularly unhinged against a supporting cast that features Rob Corddry, Alicia Silverstone, Olivia Wilde and Ashley Greene giving their best eye rolls at her obsession with winning the butter-sculpting competition. To be fair, many in Iowa say the event is as fiercely contested and important as the state’s presidential primary.
Played completely straight-faced, the part pokes fun at the more extreme versions of the Midwestern housewife ideal — Garner studied beauty queens and governors’ wives on YouTube — but the West Virginia native promises it’s more a case of laughing with people than at them.
“The tone is the hardest thing in something like this, especially because I can get into something and have too much fun, and I have to be told, ‘Chill out,’ ” she admits. “But by no means do you want to pick out people who do something, or people from a certain part of the country. You just have to hope — I mean, I’m from a state that is the butt of most jokes of any state in the country, and you have to have a sense of humor about where you’re from, and just enjoy being part of the joke.”
??Still, the film does have its serious side. Laura’s chief rival for the butter-sculpting title is a young, orphaned black girl named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) who is a self-taught prodigy in the dairy arts. As they square off, Laura imagines making a speech to the crowd — in Iowa, enthusiastic audiences watch sculptors work their buttery magic — complaining that it wasn’t her fault that she was born tall, pretty and white.
She doesn’t see Laura as a pure villain, but on this point, Garner makes a clean break from the character.
“Well, we’ll see what people think about it. You do have to lift [less fortunate] people up,” she said, channeling her inner populist. “They do deserve to be lifted up. They haven’t had the same shots that you had, but is that fair to [Laura] in that moment? No, of course not. But overall, yeah.”
It’s not all politics and thinly veiled metaphors, though. There is a fundamental silliness to the movie, from its tweaking of traditional institutions — “This is a moose lodge!” Laura yells, demanding respect for their surroundings — to its handling of the sculpting material. No movie, after all, could be entirely serious when it involves butter renderings of Schindler’s List and Newt Gingrich on a horse. Wilde plays a stripper (and sometime prostitute) who gives her crude sculpture a scarlet letter and goes to insane ends for $600, while Kristen Schaal out-weirds everyone as the president of Burrell’s fan club.
The oddball mix hits theaters in limited release Friday, but is already available on VOD and iTunes. It’s a formula that already has worked well for Weinstein this fall, with the raunchy comedy Bachelorette, and though Garner laments the loss of the group experience of seeing a film on the big screen, as a producer who had to work on a tight budget, she appreciates what the technology offers.
“It’s harder to find funding for anything,” she explained. “Just so many fewer movies are being made, and everyone is gun shy, and it’s hard to make money off of movies. And that’s why things like this new way of platforming a movie out with video on demand and iTunes — that you can go on and see this movie right now, at home — it’s just such a smart way to go, especially with these smaller films.”
As for whether she’s concerned that she’ll get hate mail once the film comes out, especially following Obama megadonor Weinstein’s antics, she simply laughs it off.
“Anyone in the Tea Party, if they’re really taking Harvey seriously — it’s showmanship. Harvey’s a great showman.”
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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