Chuck & Buck
by Jon Bastian
A potentially creepy subject is handled with finesse and the result is a treat: a feel-good movie that doesn’t pander.
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Some people dwell in the past. Some people don’t. I’m in the latter category — I just skipped my high school reunion due to a complete lack of interest on my part, but I’m sure there were many attendees who counted the days between graduation and the event. In Chuck & Buck, we meet a character who is stuck even further in his own past, a perpetual twelve-year-old. In real life, such a person would freak people out and send them running in about two seconds. Chuck & Buck does such a good job of taking us right into Buck’s weird world that, despite the misguidedness of his behavior, we’re on his side, sort of, all the way through. We’re not exactly cheering for him, at least not for his stated goal, but it’s impossible not to root for him. Chuck & Buck could have been just a strange sort of gay stalker niche film. Instead, it’s both universal and very life-affirming, no matter what your past or present preference, and if you don’t get at least a little verklempt in the last shot, you’d better see a cardiologist.
Buck O’Brien (Mike White) is the guy with the obsession here, stalking his childhood best friend, Chuck Sitter (Chris Weitz). The two are reunited after Buck’s mother dies and he invites his old buddy to the funeral. Chuck brings along his fiancée, Carlyn (Beth Colt), who makes one of those obligatorily polite but didn’t really mean it “drop by if you’re in town” comments. Buck takes it to heart and the movie takes off from there as he moves to Los Angeles to try to restore things to the way they were sixteen years earlier.
Buck is certainly a headcase, an extreme example of arrested development. His room at home (and his new room in LA) is full of little plastic soldiers and wind-up toys and awkwardly made if heartfelt collages of old photos. He still has a turntable, believe it or not, and the one record we hear him play over and over sets exactly the right tone for everything else. An original song by Gwendolyn Sanford with a repeated refrain of “…oodley oodley, fun fun fun,” it manages to be both innocently sappy and terribly creepy in a gee whiz David Lynch kind of way. If you remember “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper” from A Clockwork Orange, imagine it as performed by Laurie Anderson and you get the idea.
Buck’s big plan, of course, is to just walk back into Chuck’s life and be his bestest little buddy again, but Chuck — sorry, he prefers Charles now — doesn’t see it that way. He’s a record company exec with his own office and secretary, has a big expensive house and a soon-to-be wife, and to him, the Chuck and Buck days are a distant, best forgotten memory. Charles has grown up. However, being grown up in some of the wrong ways, he’s too polite to tell Buck why this whole thing will never work, in effect stringing him along even while trying not to play into his game. Buck is naively sincere as he walks into this emotional minefield wearing snowshoes.
One of the nice things about the film is that it is absolutely character driven, and the character driving is Buck. Things happen because he does something and it has consequences. Nothing here occurs because the plot demands it and there are no convenient coincidences or stretches of credibility. All right, it is a little convenient that Buck discovers a small theatre right across the street from Chuck’s office, but in LA, where there are hundreds of such places, it’s not at all unbelievable. It also provides a way for Buck to have his obsession for Chuck acted out, live, in a strange play called Hank & Frank that its author intends as just a fairy tale but that its director, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), correctly sees as high psychodrama, describing it as “a homoerotic, misogynistic love story.” This play’s the thing that is most definitely designed to prick the conscience of the king, although the emphasis probably isn’t on the conscience part.
Chuck & Buck is a small movie that packs a lot of punch because the situation it deals with is universal. I’m sure most of us have had in our lives at some point an embarrassing friend or acquaintance, someone socially clueless who gloms on like a barnacle and then just won’t take any hint short of a punch in the face that they’re not wanted around. I would also guess that a large number of people have been on either the giving or receiving end of minor-league stalking — drives by the house, telephone hang-ups, orchestrated “accidental” meetings at the mall. Of course, I’d hope that most of those incidents occurred during or just after the teenage years of the people involved. When a thirteen-year old girl does it, it’s cute. When a thirty-year old man does it, it’s a felony.
Chuck & Buck somehow manages to avoid the inherent “ick” factor in Buck’s behavior without shying away from any of it, and for that I must give full credit to Mike White, who not only wrote the script, but pulls off such a bravura (and, incredibly, first-time) performance here as Buck that it would be a shame if he’s not nominated for an Oscar next year. Unfortunately, though, small films like this don’t usually have the kind of cash behind them to attract Oscar’s attention.
White looks like an adult twelve-year-old with a goofy grin and a face that doesn’t know how to provide any camouflage for the emotions behind it. J.D. Salinger’s big theory on growing up was that it was the acquisition of the ability to lie. By that definition, Buck will never grow up. It’s this honesty combined with White’s amazing talent that instantly turns what could have been a very disturbing character into someone we feel more pity for than anything else, in turn making the film rather sweet-hearted instead of claustrophobic. When at one point Buck makes a very inappropriate advance to another man, our reaction isn’t to think he’s some deviant sexual predator. Rather, it’s to think, “Poor guy, he just doesn’t know any better.” Buck isn’t a monster. He’s an adult-sized puppy who decided to follow home the first human to pet him, even if it means a whack with a rolled-up newspaper. A lesser actor would have tried to play this character like a big kid, full of ticks and shuffles. White just plays him like a person.
It’s a difficult job to keep up with such a powerhouse performance, but the rest of the cast pulls it off. A standout is Lupe Ontiveros as the house manager turned stage director turned substitute earth-mother for Buck. She shoots from the hip and absolutely nothing phases her, and Ontiveros hits every mark perfectly. As Chuck, Chris Weitz, also a first-timer, gives a very nuanced performance and bears a disarming resemblance to a young Christopher Reeve. Where all of Buck’s emotions are right on the surface, Chuck has stuffed his down and Weitz takes the tricky approach of revealing his feelings without showing them, which is right on the nose for a man whose past indiscretions could be spilled out for the world to see at any moment — and he knows it. Incidentally, Chris Weitz’s real-life brother Paul Weitz has an hilarious turn as an actor who is both terrible and clueless but who bears such an uncanny resemblance to Chuck that Buck insists on casting him in his play.
Director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) guides the proceedings with a sure hand, never letting his style intrude. He and cinematographer Chuy Chávez have shot almost undetectably on digital video, a medium that is rapidly coming of age and will, with any luck, make small budget, human stories like this one common theatre fare once again.
Incidentally, it’s a nice twist to see so many writers and producers in front of the camera for a change. White (Dead Man on Campus, Freaks and Geeks) and Weitz (Antz, the upcoming Klumps) could hold their own against the Streeps and DeNiro’s of the world. Frankly, it is about time the creative minds started stepping into the footlights. We’ve certainly had enough actors with a jones for writing or producing, frequently with mixed results.
If Chuck & Buck is any indication, a trend in the other direction could be one of the best things to happen to film in a long time. After all, Shakespeare is reputed to have been a pretty good actor, too.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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