Fast-forwarding through a romantic relationship is an appealing concept, at least in theory. After all, one of the most painful pangs of regret is the feeling that you “wasted so many years” with someone who wasn’t “the one.” Radical honesty also sounds like a great idea: What kind of monster supports lying? Of course, if it was really that simple, everyone would do what the protagonists do in Duck Butter, the new film from Beatriz At Dinner’s Miguel Arteta: Spend 24 hours straight together the day after meeting and hooking up for the first time, having sex once every hour and spending the time in between being brutally honest with each other about their feelings, insecurities, and childhood baggage. The idea is that, once the 24 hours have passed, they’ll be as close as a couple that has been casually dating for months. Suffice to say, the model has its flaws.
Arteta co-wrote the screenplay for Duck Butter with star Alia Shawkat, who returns to the persona of a privileged twenty-something paralyzed by her own ennui that she played so well in TBS’s Search Party. Shawkat’s Naima—a struggling actress who overthinks her minor role in a movie at the beginning of the film, and gets fired as a result—is a convincingly nuanced and not always forthright character. As much as she tries to be present, she always has some nagging anxiety keeping her stuck inside her own mind. Sergio (Laia Costa), who Naima meets at a club shortly after her disastrous day on set, would appear to be her perfect foil: an impulsive musician who isn’t interested in anything but the present moment. But as their carnal experiment unfolds, it becomes clear that this folie a deux is one sided, as Sergio never really gets the change to develop beyond her role as plot-propelling manic pixie archetype.
Duck Butter is clever without being all that hilarious, and personal without being all that revealing. The appearance of the Duplass brothers as themselves is apropos, as the film is very indebted to the duo’s talky style, peppered here and there with bits of gross-out humor like an extended discussion of the eponymous secretion and a gag involving human feces in a cereal bowl. Combined with the frequent, moderately explicit sex scenes, that quality does lend the film a tone of intimacy combined with disgust that effectively mirrors Naima’s emotional journey throughout the film. The question is whether Arteta and Shawkat’s insights into the nature of love justify hanging out with a couple of mismatched narcissists for an hour and a half.
The answer? Despite Shawkat and Costa’s dedication to seeing this experiment through, not really. Sometimes the forced bonding between the characters is engaging, and Naima’s fumbling panic at being confronted with real intimacy provides at least one ironically amusing, I-see-what-you-did-there development late in the film. But, rather like real life, Duck Butter is just as frequently boring, irritating, and confusing as it is erotic and profound. Usually, though, you have the luxury of having all those feelings spread out a little more.