Buck O’Brien (Mike White) sucks on lollipops. A lot of lollipops. At age 27, pale, pop-eyed, and soft-bodied, Buck behaves childishly, almost as if he’s willfully immature, living with his mom and ducking so-called adult responsibilities. Buck’s immaturity shows up right away in Chuck and Buck. Under the opening credits, the camera pans over his bedroom in that revealing-the-character kind of way. You see graceless collages and too-bright posters, model cars, and other little boy toys everywhere, all made slightly unreal by Chuy Chavez’s hyperrealish digital-video cinematography. As endearing as it all looks, though, there’s also something disquieting about the room, as it signals Buck’s emotional retardation. When his gnarly, chain-smoking mother dies on her sofa, in mid-hack and with TV remote in hand, back in his room, Buck doesn’t register much of a response. The one thing he does is handwrite his old pal Chuck Sitter (Chris Weitz) an invitation to the funeral.
Arriving from LA and accompanied by his fiancée Carlyn (Beth Colt), Chuck is totally unprepared for Buck’s awkward attempt at a bathroom come-on. At first it appears that Chuck is upset at his friend’s inappropriate groping, but the film soon reveals that Buck is only reenacting the sexual play that was part of their childhood routine. Chuck now a record executive who calls himself Charlie would rather forget this particular aspect of his past. But it’s integral to Buck’s ongoing sense of himself as unchanged, as a fixed and stable identity. Stuck somewhere around age eleven, Buck has never “moved on.” Rather, he remains needy and self-centered, afraid to give up the sense of trust he felt when he was young and alarmingly resilient in his abilities to act out his fears. His unusual, unsocialized conduct threatens Chuck’s allegedly mature world, as this is structured by good manners and, above all, the film points out, artifice.
The fact that Chuck is working in the entertainment industry underscores the duplicity of this world. At the wake, he and Carlyn extend to Buck a polite invitation to visit them in L.A., which Buck takes seriously. Cashing out his bank account, he tries clumsily to insinuate himself into Chuck and Carlyn’s lives, hanging around outside his office or a restaurant where they’re having dinner. Taking pity on him, Carlyn invites Buck to a party at their house, where he encounters both insiders and wannabes. One small-talking woman asks what he “does,” and the guileless Buck answers, “Nothing.” She smiles, as if they’re sharing a joke: “I know lots of people who have that job.” Throughout the film, Buck speaks a kind of truth that other characters cannot; this capacity makes him both annoying and completely unnerving to Chuck, who has a regular grown-up’s investment in keeping up appearances. Late one night, after Carlyn has gone upstairs to bed, Buck hopefully asks Chuck if he wants to resume one of their long-ago games, the “suck and fuck.” Startled and worried that Carlyn perfectly nice person and emblem of his new straight-in-all-ways life might hear, Chuck tells his old friend to go away and never come back.
Buck’s response to this rebuff is both naïve and calculating, much the way that kids’ actions can appear to grown-ups. He writes a play, called “Hank and Frank,” which recreates some of their youthful indiscretions, and miraculously gets a local theater group to put it on, for one night only. The circumstances of this production include two key figures, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), the manager of a children’s theater company whom Buck hires to direct, and Sam (played by Chris’s brother Paul Weitz, with whom he made last year’s superpopular American Pie), whom Buck hires to play Chuck, despite Beverly’s objections that he’s a terrible actor. Though Beverly sees Buck’s project and intensity as somewhat eccentric (but this is only a matter of degree in Hollywood), she also sees a chance to get a directing credit on her resume, and eventually comes to sympathize, in a protective, almost maternal way, with Buck’s obvious struggle. This struggle has to do with the film’s central themes, identity and perception, performance and self-expression, the ways that people comprehend, invent, and represent themselves. For Buck, the play has a specific purpose, to remind his friend of their better times, to the point that he will get over this swank new lifestyle and recollect who he is, that is, Buck’s friend to the end.
Contradictory, at once charismatic and creepy, Buck is the anti-Gump. Many films about children and childlike grown-ups Forrest Gump and Disney’s The Kid included celebrate the young and innocent self, reimagining childhood as a time before self-knowledge and before sexuality. But Chuck and Buck written by White, son of former Jerry Falwell ghostwriter Mel White and a former writer-producer for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks remembers childhood more acutely and painfully, as a time when experiences are confusing and desires are unfulfilled. Still unformed and uncertain, Buck is a walking reminder to Chuck of everything he doesn’t want to be anymore. Chuck is age-appropriately perplexed by his own feelings and apprehensive about how everyone else adults and peers see him. What Chuck doesn’t get is that even when he’s grown up, he’s as anxious about his image as he was when he was young: the stakes are changed, but cultural conditioning has done its work.
Some viewers call Buck a “stalker” (and Time magazine goes so far as to call the film immoral for “sentimentalizing” his pursuit of Chuck). But such a reading overlooks the film’s complex insights into standard childhood angsts and the difficulties of socialization. While the movie certainly sympathizes with Chuck’s distress imagine someone from your own past arriving on your doorstep asking to reclaim you to a past you think you’ve left behind it also allows for other perspectives, most significantly, Beverly’s and Carlyn’s. Perhaps, in a gender-simplified dynamic, it is because they are women that neither feels threatened by Buck’s juvenile sexuality or his homosexuality. (Though, to be fair, Chuck’s female assistant is quite understandably frightened by Buck’s stubbornness and aggressiveness, his repeated phone calls and the fact that he confronts her on the street to demand Chuck’s whereabouts. In other words, Buck is not responding properly the way adults who “take a hint” might to Chuck’s own immature avoidance strategies, and eventually, Chuck takes a grudging responsibility for putting her in this terrible position.) Carlyn is the ideal girlfriend, reasonably recognizing Chuck’s past as just that, not some lasting mark against him or stamp of fixed identity; and Beverly sees Buck as a generous and creative soul, irresponsible and unconventional, but also sensitive and deserving of basic human considerations (she works with kids, which may have trained her to have more patience than someone who doesn’t).
Like Arteta’s intelligent and lively first feature, Star Maps, Chuck and Buck takes emotional risks and poses questions about children and adults, responsibility and sexuality that other films will not. Its resolution, in which the three protagonists Chuck, Buck, and Carlyn appear to find happy coupledom, looks pretty typical, movie-style fakey. But the route to this contrived “closure” is unexpected and uneasy, which makes it all look just a little suspicious. And that’s all to the good.