Monday, January 2, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Chuck & Buck" (2000)

Like a lot of tiny independent films, the true legacy of "Chuck & Buck" lies in the careers it launched rather than being a defining moment in cinema itself.

Writer and star Mike White has gone on to a productive career, first acting and then seguing into mostly writing, directing and producing, including "The Good Girl" with Jennifer Aniston and the TV series "Enlightened."

Co-stars Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz had just achieved breakout fame by co-directing "American Pie" a year earlier, and would receive Oscar nominations for "About a Boy" in 2002. They've since transitioned to very successful solo stints as writer/directors, with Chris directing one of the Twilight movies and earning a screenplay credit on the recent Star Wars spinoff, "Rogue One." Paul has been the guiding light behind the TV series "Mozart in the Jungle," and also directed last year's "Grandma" with Lily Tomlin.

Notably, the Weitz brothers have not done much acting since "Chuck & Buck," and based on their turns in the movie it's probably for the best. They're not horrible actors; it's just that White is the dazzling center of the piece. No less an authority than Jeff Bridges called White's performance among the best of the decade.

All three guys straddle the line between comedy and pathos in their work. That's evident in "Chuck & Buck," which is either the blackest comedy every made or a darkly funny exploration of sexuality and growing up. Director Miguel Arteta has similarly built a body of work that's hard to pigeonhole. For good measure, Maya Rudolph makes one of her earliest film appearances as Charlie's snarky assistant.

Back when they were 11, Chuck (Chris Weitz) and Buck (White) were the best of friends who did literally everything together. They were so close they actually kept other kids out of their little club, reveling in their own coolness. Though we later suspect it was also Buck wanting to keep his special friend all to himself.

They were also nascent lovers who engaged in some serious body exploration -- "Chuck and Buck and suck and fuck," as Buck calls their boyhood dalliances.

Time has reeled on, and they're now both 27 years old and following very different paths. Chuck, now going by Charlie, has moved to Los Angeles and become a very successful record producer. He has a lovely fiance, Carlyn (Beth Colt), seems content in his life and has seemingly suppressed all memories of his gay escapades.

Buck is stuck in a virtual time warp, still living at home while taking care of his ill mother for the last few years. When she dies, that brings Charlie back to his hometown for the funeral where they reconnect. Buck makes some unwelcome overtures, thinking they can pick up the friendship right where they left off.

Buck, apparently oblivious to all clues and protestations otherwise, then moves to L.A. on a whim so he can rekindle his relationship with Charlie, withdrawing his life savings to pay for it. Buck is hurt when Charlie keeps dodging his calls and blows him off at a party he throws to celebrate a recent promotion.

This ramps up to increasingly harassing behavior, then to outright stalking -- phone calls every 15 minutes, etc. Based on the timbre of the film, I wouldn't have been surprised at all of it fell over into a straight-up psychological thriller/horror flick, culminating in some desperately sweaty and bloody face-off a la "Fatal Attraction."

But "Chuck & Buck" is really, despite initial appearances, a hopeful story.

Buck eventually wanders into the run-down theater across the street from Charlie's office, where they put on unambitious kiddie plays for wannabe child actors. Buck rents the theater to put on a play he writes himself, a thinly veiled parable of his crushing desire for Buck, squeezed through a "Wizard of Oz" backdrop. Here Carlyn, despite being perfectly nice to Buck -- nicer than Charlie is, and certainly nicer than Buck deserves -- is represented as the evil witch.

I really loved Lupe Ontiveros as Beverly, the cranky house manager of the theater who befriends Buck and helps him put on his play -- for $25/hour, cash up front. She's an older woman who's obviously been beaten down by life, is fast to criticize others but with a center of warmth and ambition that she's never been given a chance to show. Given an opportunity to direct an original play, she jumps into becoming Buck's partner and then friend.

Paul Weitz plays Sam, a terrible actor Buck insists on hiring to play Charlie's role because of the physical resemblance. Sam is a tremendous lout, the sort of guy who hangs around his apartment all day drinking beer and annoying the neighbors with his loud noise. But Buck feels a connection, not just because he looks like Charlie but because Sam seems to have some of the same social wiring short-circuited that he does.

It's the dilemma of the awkward outsider, who sees people getting along easily with each other and wonders why he doesn't have that ability.

Things end on a note that's simultaneously creepy and comforting. After essentially extorting Charlie into having sex with him one last time, Buck moves on with his life -- taking a job at the theater, befriending Sam -- after Sam makes clear he's not gay -- and giving Charlie and Carlyn space.

It would have been interesting to explore what happened to Buck between age 11 and now. It's mentioned that Charlie moved away at some point, though I'm guessing it was before high school.

It's hard to believe Buck would still maintain this elaborate fascination for Charlie if they had stayed friends -- especially ones "with benefits" -- all the way through senior year. It's also difficult to buy that Charlie would treat Buck as such a weirdo stranger if they had kept "sucking and fucking" up through young manhood.

I'm also not sure how much of an exploration of burgeoning homosexuality the film is. Buck is presented less as gay than an unformed man-child, a sexual tabula rasa. He doesn't seem so much attracted to men as obsessed with one man in particular. In the end, his feelings for Charlie represent a dam that prevents Buck from continuing his life's journey downstream.

At once disturbing, funny and fascinating, "Chuck & Buck" is exactly the sort of movie people make at the training grounds of their careers.

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