by Jay Seaver
You may not know Philip Baker Hall's name, but you know and probably like his work. He's the old guy with the weathered eyes and gravelly voice who shows up in a half-dozen movies and TV shows every year and makes already strong ensembles better. And even if "Duck" is sometimes maudlin or bizarre, it's got Philip Baker Hall in almost every scene, and that alone makes it worth a look.Hall plays Arthur Pratt, and a series of photographs at the beginning tells his story - born in 1933, served in the military, married a beautiful woman, loved their son more than anything, and lost him in 1979 at the age of eighteen. Now his wife is gone, too, and his plan is simple: Plant a tree and scatter her ashes next to the one they planted for their son thirty years ago (even though the area is set to be bulldozed to make way for condos and a mall), then take some pills to join them. Before he can do that, though, a motherless duckling shows up. Arthur names him Joe and takes him home, but his wife's care has left him broke, and they're soon camping in the park, and then walking west toward the ocean.
"Philip Baker Hall: The only actor a duck can't steal scenes from."
Though Duck is a sort of road movie, with Arthur and Joe encountering new people every few minutes as they cross Los Angeles, there's something especially powerful about its opening scenes - Arthur is initially crushed by grief, and Joe is this tiny yellow thing that won't stay put, a perfectly innocent creature to counter Arthur's despair and disappointment. If the movie had just ended with Arthur taking Joe home, it would have been a perfect little short film, showing how the world always has use for a person like Arthur, even if he feels completely superfluous.
The episodes that follow don't so much drag things down as they introduce a bit of unevenness. Some of the segments are nearly as good as the movie's first act, but others aren't quite so well done. One or two - a Halloween party, for instance - feel as if they were made up on the spot without a clear goal in mind. Just checking out the reactions an old man and his duck get is not necessarily a bad way to make a movie like this, but the scene's got to go somewhere. The people Arthur and Joe meet also tend to fall into one of two types - older and/or down-on-their-luck but basically decent folks who are basically similar to Arthur and inflexible, rule-spouting younger folks.
That sort of drags the film away from just being a story about Arthur and his desire to be needed and loved, but more about how we as a society treat the elderly and otherwise disenfranchised as a whole. Writer/director Nicole Bettauer pointedly sets her film in 2009 - two years after its release, four years after its festival premiere, and six years after it was shot - where Jeb Bush is president, Social Security is completely wiped out, and even recycling programs have ended because they supposedly encourage homelessness. She chooses locations that are particularly garbage-strewn and run-down, showing us a future where people simply don't care enough about each other. That's probably the real point of the movie, and Bettauer does well to make it without much partisan finger-pointing and blame; she probably could have avoided mentioning the Bush family and simply let it play as the way the world is heading.
At the center, of course, is Philip Baker Hall. Hall is probably best known for playing gruff (with an optional good heart), but he doesn't seem at all out of place wearing his heart on his sleeve as he does as Arthur. Arthur's a bit of a chatterbox - as he puts it, his wife always knew what to do, but he always knew what to say - but not the type that needs to fill every quiet moment. He's got knowledge and wisdom and is happy to share, and doesn't know what he'd do without someone to share with. There's a scene late in the movie where he's hugging Joe, crying, saying he doesn't know what he'd do without him, and Hall makes it work because he isn't afraid to look a little silly.
Aside from Hall, French Stewart is probably the most recognizable name, and he's not bad, although his odd voice undercuts his suicidal character's despair a bit. Amy Hill is the one who plays off Hall the best, as a Vietnamese salon worker initially curious about the man with the duck but eventually just happy to talk to someone who looks her in the eye and respects her. Bill Cobbs could play his blind old man role in his sleep, but it's still a pleasure to see him and Hall take to each other like kindred spirits.
The ducks, of course, are delightful just by being ducks, moviedom's funniest and most lovable animals."Duck" is kind of a surreal movie - an old man and his duck wandering across a city that has at times seemed to have been hit by a slow apocalypse. It's got a good heart, though, and gives us a large portion of a talented actor we normally only see in small doses.
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originally posted: 08/29/07 11:21:38