In 1972, “Last Tango in Paris” told the story of two strangers who hung out in a Parisian apartment for several days, doing nothing but talk and have sex, and it was one of the most electrifying and revelatory movies ever made. Flash forward: “Duck Butter,” a low-budget improv vérité psychodrama, tells the story of two strangers who hang out in an apartment (and then a house) in L.A. over the course of 24 hours, doing nothing but talk and have sex, and it feels like we’re seeing the director’s cut of an IKEA commercial.
This may say something about the difference between two cinematic eras; filmmakers, even when they want to be loose and truthful, are no longer swinging quite so hard for the fences. But it also says something about how yesterday’s revolution became today’s middle-class normalcy.
In “Duck Butter,” Naima (Alia Shawkat), an aspiring indie-film actress, and Sergio (Laia Costa), an aspiring musician, meet at a club, go home together, and agree, after connecting in bed, that they’ll try to bypass the agonizing inconveniences of a romantic relationship by getting to know each other — truly, madly, deeply — in just 24 hours. They agree to have sex once an hour, which could be thought of as the “Last Tango” element, though the fact that they decide to do this, rather than just doing it, sort of takes the existential erotic fire out of the equation.
Naima and Sergio have a lot of sex, and it looks genuine enough, but watching it makes you see how redundant and irrelevant what we used to call love scenes have become. (We’ve all seen too many of them.) There are exceptions, of course. The frenzied libidinous marathons in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” — a film that clearly influenced this one — made us feel that the two characters’ spirits had merged, and that was what sealed their tempestuous bond. But in “Duck Butter,” we feel as if we’re eavesdropping on getting-to-know-you sex. It may be sexy, but it’s not delivering much news.
You could argue, however, that it beats listening to these two pour out their thoughts. In a good movie, a couple of characters sitting around talking should be enough to hold us, but the trouble with the “lifelike” conversation in “Duck Butter” is that Naima and Sergio both seem post-conversational. They tease each other, or confess this or that (my mommy left me in the street when I was four! I had to blackmail a record producer into keeping his promise to pay for my album!), but the anecdotes don’t lead anywhere, because these two are too young and hip to react to what the other is saying with anything approaching true curiosity or compassion. There’s dialogue, but very little interchange. The movie makes your average mumblecore mumblefest sound like Preston Sturges.
“Duck Butter” opens on a hooky note of faux reality: Naima, freckled and sensual, with curly chopped hair (she’s like a boyish Debra Winger), has landed a small role in a film being made by Jay and Mark Duplass, who portray themselves. So does Kumail Nanjiani from “The Big Sick” (he’s starring in their movie). The gimmick works, because when Naima starts to question the Duplass brothers’ directorial choices, we feel the sting of her shocking bad judgment and arrogance. She actually thinks her opinion means something! Naima is the sort of pill who can stop a party dead by talking about how the environment — and the future of life on earth — is now doomed. Maybe that’s why she attracts the beautiful and woefully unstable Sergio, who’s got issues of her own.
Sergio is a gorgeous narcissist, but her drama-queen antics are relatively low-rent: she pouts, she clings, she acts betrayed. Once it’s clear that neither of these two has much of great import to say, the film becomes a study in the atmosphere of “intimacy” without content. Midway through, they head from Sergio’s modest apartment over to Naima’s place, which turns out to be a splendidly spacious and pristine white-walled two-story home. Since Naima, from what we can tell, isn’t a person flush with success, the house, which was given to her by her father, becomes a key, if unintentional, prop: We’re watching a story of what romance looks like in the age of privilege, when a character like Naima can afford to treat interpersonal connection as a kind of accessory.
“Duck Butter” — the title is a sticky sexual reference, though if it’s a metaphor for something it was lost on me — is the latest film directed by Miguel Arteta, coming off the far more scripted (and entertaining) “Beatriz at Dinner.” This feels like his minimalist version of a Soderbergh palette cleanser: an experiment that doesn’t pretend to be more. The script is credited to Arteta and Shawkat, but it feels like a movie directed from an outline. That’s the sort of thing people used to do in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when a scene in a movie might do little more than poke around the possibilities for how to stage a scene. Once that seemed exploratory and bold. Now it just looks like slumming.