“This is a cutthroat tale of greed, blackmail, sex and butter,” claims Laura Pickler (Jennifer Garner), an Iowa trophy wife in power suit and pearls, and that expository voiceover serves as a good litmus test: If its juxtaposition of bad behavior and dairy products leaves you stone-faced or wearily sighing, you should exit the theater posthaste. Pickler’s husband, Bob (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell), is a local legend who’s taken first prize in the past 15 butter-carving state championships. (His margarine-like masterpieces have included The Last Supper, “T. Rex eating a girl” and an interpretation of Schindler’s List.) As this year’s contest approaches, the judges have gently asked Bob to retire in the name of fairness; his snippety spouse, however, won’t hear of it. A Bickler must win it, Laura thinks, so this would-be dairy queen enters herself as a contestant. Her main competition is Destiny (Yara Shahidi)—a ten-year-old African-American girl. Can this little hopeful beat the odds? Say it with us: Yes, she can!
As a comedy of condescension towards middle America, this collection of digs at gosh-all yokelhood and small-town venality is toothless at best. But the film has bigger targets in mind. It’s no coincidence that Garner’s stop-at-nothing competitor courts a certain Bachmann-meets-Palin vibe (lest we not get it, she’s given a “blame the liberal media” joke) or that Destiny’s oratory skills and skin color matches those of our current Democrat in chief. But director Jim Field Smith could barely handle an Apatovian farce (She’s Out of My League), much less a broad metaphor pitting Red State entitlement and hypocrisy versus true-blue soul and honesty. Political satire requires a sure hand; this wink-wink attempt at milking the culture wars for comic commentary is downright butterfingered.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear