“What exactly is duck butter?” may be the first question you have. It’s in the same vein of lewdness as Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter” (if you don’t know, go ahead and look it up!). “Duck butter” is another way of saying “smegma,” that term for that cottage cheese–like combination of oils and skin cells that builds up in your genitals. About a third of the way into Duck Butter, Miguel Arteta’s latest film — co-written by its star, Alia Shawkat — Naima (Shawkat) tells her new love interest Sergio (a woman, despite the male-sounding name, played by Laia Costa) that she once hooked up with a man who had been her pen pal. But the sex turned out to be awful. He started to go down on her only to come up looking disturbed because of her, well, duck butter. Sergio advises Naima to send the guy a box full of duck butter as revenge.
Naima and Sergio’s rom-com trajectory is unlike most. It’s not even like those one-night-stand movies, either (or that Miles Teller movie Two-Night Stand). Even though they just met — the night previous to this duck-butter confession — these women commit to a totally honest, no-filter style of dating for a full 24 hours. They jump right into the intimate getting-to-know-yous (and not just the sexual kind), after agreeing to throw out all the false pretenses that come with early phases of courtship. Oh, but there is plenty of sex, too — in fact, they agree to do it every hour, on the hour.
Sounds fun — for both the viewer and the parties involved, right? Well, not so much, and the frustrations of the characters sadly don’t amount to much of a movie. Naima isn’t usually the type to agree to so adventurous an arrangement but, after suffering a professional roadblock at work, she tries out something bold. She’s a struggling actor who had just gotten fired on a big indie movie gig directed by Mark and Jay Duplass. (They actually produced Duck Butter and star as themselves in the film, which features cameos from Kumail Nanjiani and Lindsay Burdge, who portray actors in the fictional Duplass brothers’ movie.) Feeling let down, especially after being punished for speaking her mind on set, Naima agrees to Sergio’s dating method.
Sergio is the kind of woman who really drives the manic in the term manic pixie — her erratic behavior eventually escalates to, umm, a fecal degree. By that point, I had had just about enough, just like Naima. But if the manic pixie dream girl usually is as a tool to help a film’s protagonist (usually male) realize something about themselves, it’s unclear what in this case the revelation is meant to be. I’m still hopeful about Shawkat’s screenwriting career — especially since her performance always feels so genuine, adding substance to an otherwise deflated story. But other than the script’s daring premise, the material doesn’t rise to the potential she hints at here: a comedy of ingenuity that takes advantage of Shawkat’s fearless frankness.