'Duck' gets caught between humor and pathos
Philip Baker Hall has a face only a coroner could love: slightly squashed nose, bags under the eyes, fleshy lips, creased forehead, heavy jowls. It's the face of a great character actor (and Hall is one of our best screen actors, period), made to withstand the worst indignities with dignity.
Surely, there can be few worse indignities for any actor, let alone one of Hall's talents, than having to costar with a duck. Yet Hall gives "Duck" his best shot. He somehow manages to take a truly terrible idea for a movie -- an impoverished widower wanders Los Angeles with nothing but the clothes on his back, a knapsack, and, yes, his pet duck -- and make it barely bearable.
Hall plays Arthur Pratt, a retiree whose wife has died after a long illness. Arthur goes to kill himself at her gravesite when an orphaned duckling crosses his path. Touched by the bird's plight, he brings the duck home and names him Joe. After being evicted from his apartment, Arthur carries the duck around. He defends it. He talks to it (a lot). He does everything but try to sell the duck insurance -- which would only be fair, since Joe, now fully grown, is played by the Aflac Duck.
Headed for the beach at Santa Monica, Arthur and Joe encounter various odd characters. Bill Cobbs, as a blind man, and Amy Hill, as a sympathetic pedicurist, are almost as good as Hall: believable and moving, yet blessedly understated. Bill Brochtrup is amusing as a homeless man. He advises Arthur that the best place to go when you're down and out is an AA meeting because AA has the best coffee and doughnuts.
Writer-director Nic Bettauer can't decide whether to play "Duck" for tears or laughs. (There is one very funny line, when Arthur apologizes for Joe's squawks. "He doesn't do well with confrontation.") So she strikes a very uneasy balance between the two. Hall, bless him, maintains his own balance throughout, insuring that pathos never descends into bathos. When a child asks if Joe does tricks, Arthur tells her, "No, he's just a duck. That's enough." The way Hall says the last two words, in his unemphatic, phlegmy growl, it breaks your heart.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.