'Duck Butter': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Screengrab/YouTube
A talent-stuffed letdown.
4/27/2018

Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa play women who embark on a 24-hour romantic and sexual experiment in the latest from Miguel Arteta ('Beatriz at Dinner').

It is a truth universally acknowledged that good artists sometimes get together and make underwhelming art. Duck Butter, premiering in the U.S. Narrative Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a case in point. Directed by Miguel Arteta (Beatriz at Dinner), starring Alia Shawkat (TBS’ Search Party) and Laia Costa (the 2015 German thriller Victoria), written by Arteta and Shawkat and executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass, the movie is stuffed with talent and buffed with hipster-indie polish. It’s also frequently silly, only fitfully involving and often surprisingly banal despite its outré premise: Two women meet and decide to have sex every hour for 24 hours.

That ostensibly steamy storyline, along with some of the aforementioned names, could snag the film attention at the art house and on home viewing platforms. But its appeal is narrow — and given the increasingly exciting and varied landscape of LGBT cinema, Duck Butter barely makes it on the map. (For a far more compelling lesbian romance hitting theaters the same day, check out Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in fine form.)

Yet another variation on the kind of bobos-adrift-in-L.A. narratives that have cluttered screens both big and small over the last several years, Duck Butter opens on Naima (Shawkat), a twentysomething working actress who lives in one of those improbably spacious SoCal-movie homes. Naima has just booked a role on a project directed — in a distracting bit of meta-ness — by the Duplass brothers, and the first day doesn’t go well. That night, blowing off steam at a bar, she meets Sergio (Costa), a sultry Spanish singer whose free-spiritedness is signposted by her decision to jump down from the stage mid-performance and start kissing random women in the audience. Before long, flirty, fiery Sergio and the more introverted Naima are tumbling into bed together.

For reasons that don’t make much sense, Naima is fired from the Duplass film the next day, and ends up back at Sergio’s house. The two women make a pact to spend 24 hours having sex every hour and, in between rolls in the hay, to be totally, unflinchingly honest with each other. They conceive of this as some sort of big middle finger to the mechanics of 21st century romance — the first dates, text messages and mind games. “I want to see you take a shit. I want to see you get angry,” Sergio tells Naima, who admits she’s “never gotten close enough to anyone to love them.”

Unfortunately, watching this experiment in accelerated intimacy is like being a fly on the wall of a one-night stand during which the two parties display enviable sexual endurance, but never shut up and go to sleep — or give you much reason to pay attention to what they’re saying. Such is the crucial failing of Duck Butter: It doesn’t work hard enough to earn our interest in these characters.

Naima and Sergio sing and shout (Sergio demanding that Naima yell “I am so beautiful!” is a wince-worthy low point), eat mangoes and play music, fart into an IPhone and throw around a pan full of poop (don’t ask — really, don’t). But mostly, they converse. Romantic talkathons form a rich subgenre, with Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Chris Rock’s Top Five, movies by Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer and episodes of series like Netflix’s Love and Master of None some fine examples that spring to mind. Thanks to vivid writing and chemistry between actors, those works make us feel the euphoria and awkwardness, the scary, giddy, glorious kick of two people connecting. The dialogue in Duck Butter, on the other hand, is unremarkable, and occasionally downright grating: a mix of narcissistic patter (from Naima) and Euro Pixie Dream Girl inanities (from Sergio), with little satirical perspective — the movie takes the duo’s flailing bid for emotional and erotic authenticity oh-so-seriously — or real, relatable feeling.

In sharp and squirmy comedies like Chuck & Buck and Cedar Rapids — and even an above-average studio gig like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day — Arteta has proven a deft, graceful director. But on the basis of this film and his prior feature screenplay credit, his shaky 1997 debut Star Maps, writing isn’t his strong suit. Though he and Shawkat are, I think, trying to get at the gulf between what we want from love and what we’re capable of, they drown out their insights with too much noise, both literal (laughter, orgasms, slamming doors) and narrative (an orgy with another couple; a visit from Sergio’s mom).

Even the reliably captivating Shawkat — whose performance in Season 2 of TBS' Search Party is a master class in sweaty desperation and barely repressed guilt — struggles to piece together a coherent character out of Naima’s commitment issues, changing moods and bursts of passive-aggressiveness. And Costa, so mesmerizing as an expat in over her head with a crew of Berlin criminals in Victoria, is essentially playing a collection of exotic quirks. The two make a striking pair, but the mounting intensity of their exchanges feels arbitrary — more a function of the story’s need for ups and downs than any persuasive human behavior.

A notable exception is a piercing scene toward the end, in which Naima and Sergio reach a breaking point. Their confrontation hints at the film Duck Butter could have been if it weren’t so infatuated with its own central gimmick: an exploration of how clashing temperaments shaped by different cultures — think European romanticism versus American pragmatism — affect a budding relationship.

Arteta also nails the ending with a stinging final shot — a simple, suggestive image that captures the quietly soul-shaking power of a brief but transformative affair. You’re reminded of what a fine filmmaker he can be, and, alas, how far this latest effort is from his best.

Production company: Duplass Brothers Productions
Distributor: The Orchard
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Miguel Arteta, Alia Shawkat
Cast: Alia Shawkat, Laia Costa, Mae Whitman, Hong Chau, Kate Berlant, Kumail Nanjiani, Lindsay Burdge, Mark Duplass, Jay Duplass
Producer: Mel Eslyn, Natalie Qasabian
Executive producers: Alia Shawkat, Miguel Arteta
Cinematographer: Hillary Fyfe Spera
Editor: Chris Donlon
Production designer: Angel Herrera
Music: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Casting: Amey Rene
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)

93 minutes