Based on an off-Broadway play by Rebecca Gilman, "Spinning Into Butter'' regrettably wears its earnestness on its sleeve, as it not so subtly exposes the hypocrisy and condescension inherent in political correctness.

As facile and synthetic as the why-can’t-we-all-get-along themes whirling through “Spinning Into Butter” are, I’m surprised they didn’t title it “Spinning Into Margarine.”

Other than a standout performance from Sarah Jessica Parker, who also produced the film, the tale of race relations at a designer-label college in upstate Vermont (think Middlebury) is utterly banal, if not unintentionally hilarious.

Based on an off-Broadway play by Rebecca Gilman, “Spinning Into Butter” regrettably wears its earnestness on its sleeve, as it not so subtly exposes the hypocrisy and condescension inherent in political correctness.

Our conduit into this privileged world of self-proclaimed do-gooders is Parker’s Sarah Daniels, the new dean of students whose infiltration of the hallowed ivy-covered walls of Belmont College creates a stir after one of the school’s dozen or so black students (Paul James) receives a series of racist messages tacked to the door of his dorm room.

Instead of handling the matter internally, as the school’s top administrators (James Rebhorn and Miranda Richardson) prefer, Sarah calls the local police, setting off a local media frenzy that reaches its zenith at a campus-wide racial forum that turns ugly and violent.

Besides covering much the same ground as John Singleton’s vastly superior “Higher Learning,” “Butter” (the title drawn form the story of “Little Black Sambo”) suffers from a terminal case of oversimplification of complex matters, issues that have haunted and shamed this nation since its inception.

That doesn’t stop director Mark Brokaw from whittling that long history down to a series of inane conversations between Sarah and Aaron (Mykelti Williamson), a TV reporter from Burlington who when we first meet him is oddly armed with a tape recorder instead of a mini-cam. Yup, nothing more riveting than hearing audiotapes played on TV.

Their encounters prove implausible enough, but when you learn that Aaron (a character not in the stage version) was a reporter in Chicago at the exact same time Sarah was in the Windy City serving as the very frightened dean of students at a predominantly black college, you can’t help but roll your eyes and giggle.

Worse, someone got the idiotic idea to add a hint of romance to their salt-and-pepper relationship. It’s as ham-handed as it sounds; but not as ham-handed as the black-and-white (pun intended) portrayals of the students and faculty.

Predictably, the black students believe the white students don’t treat them as equals and the white students feel that the black students get too many advantages, such as scholarships that go only to minorities.

And while the intent is honorable, their well-worn words just evaporate into the air, failing to connect on even the most remedial levels. As if we didn’t know that racism is bred, not born; or that people are often insensitive to other cultures and beliefs.

The actors, including Beau Bridges as a professor who’s not as liberal as he thinks and Victor Rasuk as a student offended at being labeled Hispanic (but oddly later refers to himself as being Hispanic), do yeoman’s work trying to keep “Butter” from melting into a pool of drivel. But they and Brokaw, making an inauspicious leap off the stage to screen, are completely overmatched.

Only Parker comes out unscathed and that’s because she’s the only member of the cast provided a character with any depth and complexity. Her Sarah talks a liberal game, but deep down she’s the worst racist on campus.

You also have to admire Parker’s willingness to forgo the usual high-fashion adornments we’re used to seeing her don as Carrie Bradshaw, trading them all for a mousy brown wig, little makeup and baggy, unflattering dresses that make her look beyond plain.

Clearly, she was willing to go all the way with the character, doing whatever it takes to make Sarah resonate as an example of one of our nation’s worst menaces: a racist in liberal clothing. But she’s trumped by something even more heinous: a well-meaning movie done in by shortsightedness and ineptitude.


SPINNING INTO BUTTER (PG-13) Cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Mykelti Williamson, Miranda Richardson, Beau Bridges and James Rebhorn. Directed by Mark Brokaw. 1 star

Reach Al Alexander at aalexander@ledger.com.