Boys to Men
Stalkers have been fodder for comedies from Bringing Up Baby to There’s Something about Mary, thrillers from Fatal Attraction to Scream, and innumerable Very Special TV movies of the week. Rarely, however, has the matter been approached cinematically with any sense of humanity. Chuck & Buck—one of those Sundance success stories written up in Entertainment Weekly in January but not released to U.S. cineplexes until late summer—may be packaged as an “edgy comedy,” but it’s not the occasional chuckle it elicits that makes this film interesting, but the complex ways in which the viewer is asked to identify with a stalker who is neither a psycho nor necessarily a comic hero.
Best friends at age 11, Chuck and Buck spent some charmed times playing spy games in the back yard. Eighteen years later, the pasty, sucker-addicted Buck (Mike White, who wrote the script) still lives at home with his mother. When she dies, he invites Chuck (Chris Weitz, the producer half of the brothers-team who made American Pie) back home for the funeral. Chuck, the traditionally attractive (tall, dark, handsome) type, has since moved to Los Angeles and become engaged to Carlyn (Beth Colt). At the ceremony, Buck is giddy at the sight of his long lost pal. He has not, by all indications, had a single friend since the two were parted years before. Later, at Buck’s house during the reception, he makes a pass at Chuck in the bathroom. Chuck, understandably, is freaked out by the incident—hitting on a guy at the toilet is just bad manners. Soon thereafter, Buck decides to move to L.A.; where better to keep tabs on his old friend and plague him with phone calls and unannounced visits? A man with no profession or discernible skills, Buck decides to do the L.A. bum thing: become a writer.
Buck composes a fairy-tale play called Hank and Frank, based on his relationship with Chuck, whose fiancée he portrays as a witch, naturally. The theater manager-turned-director for Hank and Frank, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros, a wonderful character actress finally getting a significant role) keeps Buck and his crackpot ideas in check as best she can. “It’s like a homoerotic misogynistic play,” she says of Buck’s script. (Wanna bet that criticism came from an real person about the guys-obsessed Chuck and Buck screenplay?) But Buck simply doesn’t get it. In essence a child awkwardly outfitted in an adult’s body, he plans to use the play as a means to “win” Chuck back: if only Chuck sees the play, Buck imagines, he’ll know who really loves him.
Unfortunately for Buck, the now-straight Chuck has “grown up”: he has a career, a house, a BMW, and a woman, and now goes by the more suave moniker, “Charlie.” Buck, on the other hand, is a severe case of arrested development. And yet, for all of his irritating naiveté, Buck is an intriguing protagonist, because he resists cultural expectations—not in that now-clichéd James Dean sense, but in the sense that he’s an utter misfit who only partially realizes this. He dresses in clothes his mother bought him (presumably in the 80s), decorates his room with action figures, and even drinks alcohol like a youngster - he hasn’t moved beyond the rum & Coke stage. When Buck does “grow up” at the film’s end—that is, realizes he has no romantic future with Chuck—it’s bittersweet. He may be have an easier time fitting in or having a professional life now that he has lost his obsession, but without a central passion, he doesn’t seem happier or to have any sexuality left. When he is scoped out by a gay man at Chuck’s wedding, Buck does not seem to even register what is happening. All he cares about is satisfying his sweet tooth with some cake. At least Buck has not be cured by meeting the “right woman.”
Although Chuck and Buck is being niche-marketed heavily toward gay audiences, and some (straight) film critics may reduce it to a comedy of clashing sexual orientations, Buck’s desire for Chuck has less to do with sexuality (homo-; or otherwise) than childish expectations and admiration. The only time Buck appears to be attracted to a man other than Chuck is when that man, Sam (Paul Weitz, the director half of the American Pie team) functions as Chuck’s substitute, literally: Sam plays the Chuck role in the play. Repeatedly, Buck’s sexual propositions to Chuck are adolescent (a naughty reference to wanting to “suck and fuck”), irrational (phrased as an ultimatum), and awkward (copping a feel). Eventually, Chuck and Buck’s prepubescent tomfoolery is revealed, and Chuck concedes remembering and enjoying his experimental phase. If this film only accomplishes one thing, it’s this: acknowledging that even straight boys explore their sexuality with their male friends and come out of the experience more aware of themselves, not necessarily fucked up. Boyish infatuations on other boys are a normal part of adolescence.
Such a sensitive observation is not so surprising, considering that both White (who write the screenplay) and director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) also worked on the ill-fated but finely observed Freaks and Geeks. Perhaps because White seems so genuinely to embody Buck, he quickly ingratiates himself with the audience much the way Buck does with Chuck. His convincing performance is compounded by the TV- and home movie-encoded “realness” of Chuck & Buck‘s digital video origins (transferred to 35mm for distribution, but the original format remains discernible). The “realness” the film conveys breaks down the dramatic distance for the audience, making the film much more in-your-face than >Freaks and Geeks, which had an affectionate, distanced tone. In response to Buck’s ignorance, the film has a mocking perspective of him and his relationship to Chuck. The audience is provoked to laugh at him, at his socially inept abruptness in conversation and at his private weeping. Watching the tv series, we laughed in recognition of the characters and situations, as they reflected us. Either White and Arteta should have been more provocatively cruel, or they should have given their characters some sympathetic breathing space. As the film stands, it sheds some light on what happens between young boys, but very little about what happens between men after they have grown up ... whatever that means.