Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CHUCK & BUCK (2000)

What is it about photographs of toys that seems so melancholy? I think it's because we imbue toys with personality, but the photo captures their lifelessness.  Extreme close-ups of toys, like the ones that open Chuck & Buck, make the figures seem like fossils stuck in time.

Buck (Mike White), although he's 27, is stuck in time, too. He's still operating at the level of a kid who wants to eat lolly pops all day and show you his room full of toys and games. He still wears the clothes that a kid would wear, and we imagine that he combs his hair the same way he did when he was 12. When his sickly mother dies, he invites his childhood friend Chuck to the funeral. Chuck (Chris Weitz) lives in Los Angeles, works for a music label, and is engaged to be married. Chuck and Buck haven't seen each other in years. Things seem a bit strained between them at the funeral, but it's nothing we can quite put a finger on.  When the service is over and no one is around, Buck puts his hand on Chuck's ass and gives it a squeeze. Chuck recoils, and announces that he and his fiance must leave the funeral immediately. Before they leave, Chuck's fiance casually invites Buck to visit them if he's ever in LA. This is something she'll regret.

Buck quickly packs his toys,  and begins his journey. He's not a complete case of arrested development. He can drive a car, has a considerable amount of money tucked away in his savings, and has no trouble relocating. His desire to be near Chuck is all consuming, as if the death of his mother has freed him to pursue something long sublimated. Once in LA, Buck pops up at Chuck's office and at his home.  "Wow," he says. "We used to play 'office,' and now you really work in one. What do you do here all day?" Chuck tolerates these impromptu visits until Buck invites him to play an old sex game they used to enjoy. Disgusted and embarrassed, Chuck bans Buck from any more visits. We next see Buck in his cramped motel room, surrounded by his toys, weeping into his pillow.

Many observers have described Buck as a "stalker" or a "psycho," but those terms are too simple. He is a lonely human. At one point in the film he cries uncontrollably and howls, "There is no love for me. Not anymore." What we learn is that he and Chuck had some sort of sexual encounter when they were children, perhaps more than one, instigated by Chuck.  The event, we assume,  was traumatizing, for a part of Buck has remained the age he was when he and Chuck did whatever they did. Chuck, somehow, has moved on. Buck stayed behind.

Mike White, who wrote the screenplay, gives one of the most daring performances of the past 30 years as Buck. He's appeared in other movies playing a variety of nerds and clumsy guys, but he's amazing here. He's relentless in his quest to seduce his old friend, and scarily suggests the despair in his life when he says, "Everything makes me feel dead." For all of Buck's childlike goofiness, there's an adult trying to emerge, an adult that desires a connection and doesn't know how to achieve it. That he ends up working at a local children's theater is one of the film's strange twists. He writes a play called Hank and Frank and the Witch, about a witch who puts a curse on two boys. Buck's hope is that Chuck will see the play and understand something about their friendship."She left me crippled and made you stupid," says one of the boys in the play.  Is the witch supposed to be Chuck's wife? Possibly. Buck believes Chuck's fiance is coming between them, even though she's never anything less than nice to him. Is the witch a representation of how sex between children can leave the parties permanently damaged? More likely. Onstage, the two boys die in each other's arms, while the witch cackles offstage. The dangers of sex triumph; no one is safe.

Buck arrives at the theater in a haphazard way, but it  makes sense within the confines of his life. The theater is across the street from Chuck's office. He sees they are producing The Wizard of Oz, which inspires him to write about Frank & Hank. The theater environment is where he meets two people who will help him grow up a little. One is Beverly the stage manager (Lupe Ontivares), who agrees to direct his play. Beverly treats Buck as an adult, and admonishes him when he fails to behave like one. She is probably the first adult to look him in the eye and treat him like an equal, and whatever weirdness she sees in him is not that big a deal to her. "I think you have a weird thing about women," she says after reading his play. "You have a weird thing about men, too."

The other character of importance is a bad actor named Sam. Despite Sam's lack of talent, Buck casts him in the play because he looks a bit like Chuck (Sam is played by Paul Weitz, the brother of Chris Weitz). Sam, a macho lug-head whom Beverly openly calls a "moron," is as lost and clueless as Buck. "People kept telling me I'm so funny that I should be an actor," Sam says. "So here I am."  At one point, after a night of drinking together, Buck tries to snuggle up to Sam on the couch. Sam is annoyed, but dismisses the episode by saying, "I don't want to hump ya. Ok?" Sam might have been worth his own movie. His complete lack of talent is only compounded by the depth of serious he brings to the production. He should've been in Waiting for Guffman. But underneath his dim cover is what seems to be a nice guy. He even invites Buck to move into the vacant apartment across the hall: "You'd be better than having some bitch move in." 

Despite his new friends, Buck is still fixated on Chuck. When Chuck attends the play and leaves without commenting, a desperate Buck goes into his endgame. He makes Chuck an offer: If Chuck spends a night with him, Buck will never bother him again. Their night together is gentle, and melancholy. Chuck laughs at the absurdity of it all, but in the wee hours of the morning, he and Buck reach an impasse. "Do you remember me?" Buck says. His voice aches at the thought that the defining moment of his childhood meant nothing. "I remember you," Chuck finally says. "I remember everything."   Chuck reveals himself to be a decent person, someone who is trying, not without difficulty, to be an adult. I also suspect there is some pain inside him, knowing that what seemed like a playful childhood sex act left his friend in a bad state. When Chuck leaves Buck in the middle of the night, there's no more to be said. Their childhood ends with a quick blowjob in a dank motel, Buck's dehumidifier puffing away next to them.

Chris Weitz has the more difficult role of Chuck. He could easily be viewed as the villain of the piece. Yet, it's easy to identify with him not wanting to deal with the mistakes of his past, or take responsibility for a bothersome old friend.  When Chuck yells at Buck, we don't feel mad at him. Buck is a handful, and we certainly wouldn't want him in our lives. Late in the film, Chuck sees Buck at a restaurant with his new theater friends. They exchange a friendly glance. Chuck seems relieved, and glad, that Buck has new people around him.  The film ends with Chuck's wedding; Buck is an invited guest, eating some wedding cake, chatting with a stranger.  He appears to have matured. The film closes on a hopeful note, with Buck squinting into the sun, squinting into his own future.

Director Miguel Arteta deserves much of the credit for taking material that could be dark and creepy and keeping it alive a. He loads the film with childlike music, which I think inspired a handful of indy movie soundtracks down the road, from Napoleon Dynamite to Juno.  By keeping the tone playful, we're not too put off by Buck's weirdness. Otherwise, this film could've easily turned into something like The Cable Guy, just an overwrought black comedy about a stalker.

The film won an independent spirit award in 2001, but was not without  critics - some found it homophobic in the way that Buck was depicted. Others objected to the way Chuck simply shrugged off his gay experience and "grew out of it." The film was also harshly criticized in some circles because it was filmed using primitive digital technology and looks rather bleached out. Some felt it was visually ugly, and a poor advertisement for indy films. Personally, I've never thought it was anything less than beautiful. It is the world as Buck sees it, slightly hazy and faded, like and old photograph album. As for the gay themes, I've never thought Chuck & Buck was presented as a manifesto about gay behavior. It's a story about these particular people.

White has written and or directed a handful of interesting films, including The Good Girl, School of Rock, Year of The Dog,  and the recent HBO series, Enlightenment.  He often writes about people who are stuck in a certain frame of mind and are trying to break out of it.  Sometimes they become fanatical in their efforts to change,  but they mean well, they learn their lessons, and they eventually find a safe place to land. He's a good-hearted writer and wants the best for his characters. He writes well for males or females. He can be broadly funny, or dark and skewed.  That he has consistently attracted good actors to his projects, and that they tend to work with him more than once, says a lot about him.

Looking at Chuck & Buck recently, it seems from a time that has already passed. It came out at the height of the indy film boom, but 14 years later it's doubtful that such a strange, personal film could slip through the world of super heroes and zombies that are polluting the cinema. Even the indy films of this era, with their self-conscious nods to style and their overly talkative characters, seem more like television sitcoms. Chuck & Buck was unique, and still feels that way now.

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