"Butter" — a frequently funny comedy from director Jim Field Smith ("Episodes") and first-time screenwriter Jason Micallef — is essentially a sports film with a layer of cultural (and, by the end, political) satire. In the tradition of that genre, it pits the sweet, utterly lovable underdog against the smug, utterly loathable alpha dog — only this time, the competition is sculpture; the medium, butter.
In the film's world, you can forget about the early presidential caucuses: Here the most important event in Iowa is the butter sculpture competition at the annual state fair. Indeed, in the real world, Iowa does appear to be this art form's hub. Bob Pickler (Ty Burrell) is the undisputed champ and the pride of his home town. We are introduced to some of his most memorable works, culminating in a replica of Leonardo's "Last Supper," with Neil Diamond as Jesus. "Better than the original!" shouts the Des Moines Register.
Bob has so dominated the field that the officials think it's time he step down and give someone else a chance. Being the most genial and passive of men, Bob immediately agrees, much to the fury of Laura (Jennifer Garner, who also co-produced), his shallow, grasping, manipulative — add your own damning descriptors here — wife. Feeling that the championship is her family's only point of pride, she decides to enter on her own, having picked up a lot of tips from Bob over the years.
She seems a shoo-in until the appearance of Destiny (Yara Shahidi), a completely adorable, parentless, 10-year-old moppet who arrives at the home of Ethan and Jill Emmet (Rob Corddry and Alicia Silverstone), the latest in a long list of foster parents. Apparently no one has previously noticed that Destiny has terrific artistic talents, which blossom quickly when she starts working in butter. Soon Laura is waging a vicious campaign to undermine the little girl. At the same time, Destiny receives support from Brooke (Olivia Wilde), a hooker/stripper with a grudge against Laura.
It's all a bit silly, in the manner of the recent Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis vehicle "The Campaign," only less adrift from reality and with more genuinely funny zingers. Without being quite as condescending as "Citizen Ruth" or as dark-tinted as "To Die For," the first half likewise presents an overly broad depiction of small-town, flyover America and so may leave a bad taste in your mouth. This aspect threatens to overstay its welcome, but thankfully the focus and tone shift as Laura becomes an out-and-out villain.
Garner obviously relishes the opportunity to play la chienne. Wikipedia — that nonauthoritative authority — references the possibility that "Butter" is a spoof of the 2008 Democratic primaries, but the connection seems limited to the spouse of a former winner fighting tooth and nail to beat a younger black candidate who has appeared out of nowhere. You don't have to be a Democrat to think that the way Laura presents herself has a lot more in common with Sarah Palin or, even more likely, Michele Bachmann.
Note to Hugh Jackman fans: Be warned that Jackman shows up more than halfway through and appears in only three or four scenes. He justifiably gets one of those all-purpose "with" credits after all the major players. He's basically wasted in a role that could have been done as well by any number of less talented actors.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).