As I’m sure that Michael Moore will attest, one of the greatest challenges in setting out to make a "message movie" is that, no matter how admirable your intentions may be, you have to fight the urge to preach while reconciling the best way to tell the story. And while at least Moore has the advantage of working in the realm of nonfiction documentary filmmaking — despite critical accusations to the contrary — it’s far more difficult when you’re working in the field of narrative fiction features. For proof, look no further than writer/director Nic Bettauer’s award-winning festival favorite Duck.
The overwhelmingly melancholy Duck is set in the dystopian, not-so-distant future of 2009 where, under the rule of Commander-in-Chief Jeb Bush, social security has been abolished, recycling programs have been canceled, and public parks have been converted to landfills.
In hoping to avert the overwhelming sadness of the picture which opens with the plotted suicide of the elderly, widowed Arthur (Philip Baker Hall), Bettauer employs, as she notes in an exclusive DVD interview, a “slightly skewed absurdist [sense of] humor.” The initial result is surprisingly fresh and, given the dire opening, desperately welcome as Arthur changes his deadly plans when an intervention is staged by an unlikely source, namely a small baby duck who wanders over to our hapless hero. Having lost his entire family, the duck, who is later renamed Joe by Arthur, mistakes the human for his mother and eagerly charmed by his new feathered friend, Arthur ignores his landlord’s rule of no animals or plants and takes him to his apartment.
In the first of several irresistibly sweet-natured and charming sequences, Arthur tries to adapt to the duck and become a good host for his roommate. Initially filling his floor with papers including comics Arthur assumes will amuse Joe, he soon gives up upon realizing Joe has a mind of his own. Having offered shelter, Arthur proceeds to look after the rest of Joe’s immediate needs, by trying to tempt him with a variety of edible treats from popcorn to salad until remembering the old adage that everyone likes bread. Entertaining Joe with a beloved Tchaikovsky record and an impromptu picnic, the two become fast friends and bunk buddies and the exceptionally lonely Arthur sums it up best when he tells Joe, “I’m really glad you’re here,” since it makes him feel like he is, too. Soon Joe grows into a bigger duck and, after developing an allergy problem, Arthur helps ease his roommate’s sinuses by bathing him with bath salts to cure a sneezing fit.
However, just as quickly as Arthur makes the impulsive decision to bring Joe into his solitary life, the lovable tone of the film is speedily abandoned in favor of cruelly depicted, forced satire, and unrelenting darkness after the landlord Arthur's known his entire life, evicts him from the apartment, sending Arthur and Joe to the streets. While their ultimate goal is to head for the sea, along the way adventures ensue.
Unfortunately, instead of continuing in the same nearly improvisational, friendly set-up Bettauer teased us with in Arthur’s one-on-one scenes with Joe, the film derails completely. Ultimately, the last hour of Duck evolves into a clichéd, stereotypical, and overly indulgent mess as they meet one dysfunctional, dissatisfied, and disturbed character after another who are all too eager to stand on a soapbox and give a lecture, recite a canned propagandist speech, to teach a lesson or invite Arthur to do the same.
Admirably shot in just eighteen days, Duck was inspired by the director’s commendable compassion for humanity, given her impressive history of volunteerism working with those less fortunate in the areas of suicide prevention, rehabilitation, and helping the mentally and terminally ill. And although her film opens with tremendous creative potential and benefits from a consummately professional leading performance by the gifted Philip Baker Hall (Hard Eight, Magnolia), who in the DVD interview likened his character to a mad King Lear and Sir Galahad, in the end he’s wasted by the poorly developed second and third act.
I can only blame the culprit of having the very best of intentions as ultimately Bettauer’s unable to let go of what she described in the press release as her overwhelming and worthwhile purpose to warn us “where we’re heading in the hopes of creating… change,” that she forgets to question whether or not it works as a film.
Regrettably, as Bettauer shares in the press notes her passionate belief that the “one thing many homeless hang onto, to fight boredom and pass the time of day, is the dying art of storytelling,” the end result feels like nothing more than a liberal propagandist piece. It’s a term I don’t throw around lightly, as a proud liberal in my own right and therefore one who really was hoping for the best. But instead of preaching to those she wants to entertain, she would’ve best served her purpose and aided those for whom she truly cares by offering a film that inspires rather than drains and tells a story rather than pushes the narrative arc so far off into the distance, that all that is left is political spin.
Despite this, she definitely earns points for her ability to take a cue from the tagline and “think outside the flock,” in her decision to write in a duck, being that a dog would’ve made a far more obvious sidekick for an unlikely buddy comedy drama. And in fact, charmingly, the DVD, which features not only commentary and interviews with Bettauer and Baker Hall as well as desktop downloads, a photo gallery, bios and more, offers some delightful accounts from the filmmaker and star about the challenges and joys in working with several unpredictable ducks.
However, in aspiring to offer us a story about hope, Bettauer ultimately could’ve learned a lesson from some of the more subtle, less-is-more, quirky, moral, independent comedies that celebrate humanity and tolerance such as Lars and the Real Girl and The Station Agent. As an old screenwriting professor used to say, movies are a “show me” medium as opposed to the “tell me” medium of literature, therefore it came as no surprise when I discovered that Bettauer decided to expand Duck by writing a novella based on her script and the resulting film.
Unfortunately, she didn’t differentiate between the two beforehand, for — in the end — the best way to move us is while utilizing the cinematic medium to show us “compassion” rather than simply quacking about it for ninety-eight minutes. And while aside from the opening half hour, I can’t recommend the film, I have no doubt that Duck -- which was best suited for the “tell me” medium all along — will make one excellent book, since in that medium quacking is not only encouraged but required.