There are many variations on the premise of “Duck Butter,” in which Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) commit to spending 24 romantic hours talking about life. Richard Linklater made a whole trilogy of them. Nevertheless, this amiable and ambling dramedy directed by Miguel Arteta and co-written by Shawkat in her screenwriting debut has its own unique sensibility, and while it falls short of coalescing into much of a bigger picture, manages to fulfill the expectations of its well-worn trope without screwing it up.
Initially, the movie threatens to become too meta for its own good. As “Duck Butter” begins, struggling actress Naima is driving to the L.A. set of a Duplass brothers movie, while listening to a podcast featuring the sibling filmmakers talking about their work. It’s a peculiar setup, not only because the very concept of a hardcore Duplass brothers fan (a Duplass-stan?) seems like the setup for an indie film punchline; the ensuing goofy on-set hijinks hint at a very different movie than the one following them. It’s almost as if Shawkat wanted to make a Duplassian comedy, but discovered a more soulful narrative in the process. But, hey, that’s life, and “Duck Butter” shows enough sensitivity for its character’s odd journey to carry it through the uneven start.
Naima’s convictions about her talents quickly fizzle on set, where she makes an ill-conceived attempt to advise the brothers (Mark and Jay Duplass, hilarious as always) about the rest of the cast (Kumail Nanjiani and Lindsay Burge, who could totally pop up in a Duplass brothers joint at any moment).
At a club that night, Naima encounters Sergio, an ebullient Latin-American woman who’s a terrible singer but a magnetic stage presence, and their chemistry takes instant shape. Costa, a Spanish actress best known for the brilliant German heist thriller “Victoria,” stands out on the screen as a petite ball of energy ideally suited to play opposite Shawkat’s introverted Naima.
When Naima follows Sergio home, the carefree musician presents her with a strange proposal: Spend a full day in each other’s company, keep no secrets, and screw the outside world. At first, Naima’s too committed to her acting ambitions, but a sudden development leaves her jobless, and soon she’s writhing with Sergio in bed and rambling about the meaning of life. Lazy sex, playful moments at the piano, and ample existential chatter ensues.
Arteta has been exploring the gentle comedic rhythms of bored Angelenos since his breakout “Star Maps” more than 20 years ago, and the movie works best when it simply observes its characters’ pillow talk. (There are a handful of textured moments, where small gestures and glances say more than minutes of banter, worthy of Claude Chabrol.)
That’s not quite enough to compensate for a meandering third act, when of course all the tension between the women comes to the foreground in a screaming match. It doesn’t help that, while Shawkat gives Naima a credible blend of anxiousness and melancholy, the combustible Sergio seems like a half-formed character whose odd circumstances — a nice home and confidence in her artistic abilities — don’t quite gel with the reality of her circumstances. She’s a walking paradox: an angel designed to free Naima from her insecurities, and on some level, a contributor to them. “Duck Butter” never resolves that dichotomy, and her behavior extends to the movie’s tone, which oscillates from goofy toilet humor to tender exchanges without finding the happy medium to justify its big swings.
Nevertheless, “Duck Butter” remains a likable high-concept experiment, and it evades the trappings of its twee premise by resisting the romanticism Naima seeks. She’s destined to screw things up for herself, just like everyone else, and it’s refreshing to see a lesbian romance riff on this well-worn material without trying to make Naima’s sexual proclivities into a story point.
As a whole, it’s a gentle character study we’ve seen before, but Shawkat — whose work on “Search Party” and “Arrested Development” show her remarkable range — has enough grasp of these narrative tropes to wield them with confidence. The movie amounts to a tame, forgettable doodle, as if designed to imitate the scruffy Duplass movies that Naima worships; for Shawkat, however, it’s a promising step in a new direction that suggests a far more confident artist than the one she plays onscreen.
“Duck Butter” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. The Orchard will release it later this year.