We take it for granted that we ever actually ‘grow up’. We age, certainly, and we get taller and fatter, but mental growth seems optional, at least past a certain point. Given the complexity of our psyches, it’s not incomprehensible that we retain so many of our child-like (and childish) mentalities long after we’ve become ‘adults’. But perhaps some of the most fascinating individuals are those that hit a wall in that development from child to adolescent to adult. Of course, we aren’t really lacking for any depictions of such man-children on film, but they’ve almost typically been rendered in a wholly comedic way, rather than in one that seeks a more genuine depiction of the ‘condition’ that explores it on a more psychological level.
Chuck & Buck is one such film that seeks to do that. It was written by Mike White who also plays the “Buck” half of the title characters. The film opens with the death of Buck’s mother, which prompts him to invite his childhood friend, Chuck (Chris Weitz), to the funera. Chuck brings his fiancee, Carlyn (Beth Colt). It quickly becomes apparent that Buck has feelings for Chuck, and even though Chuck rejects him, he invites him to visit him and his wife in California sometime. Instead of visiting, Buck just moves there and begins stalking Chuck, desperate for some attention. But Chuck is now a successful recording artist manager who looks at Buck as little more than an annoyance. Devastated by Chuck’s rejection, Buck decides to write a play to capture their childhood. He hires a local theater manager named Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros) to direct, and Sam (Paul Weitz) to play the role of “Chuck” since he looks like him.
Chuck & Buck is listed as a comedy and, ostensibly, that’s what it is, yet the laughs are only found in the painfully awkward social ineptness of Buck and his strained attempts at recapturing Chuck’s friendship, and any laughs that leave the audience’s lips are most likely to be out of a prickly uncomfortableness. This is mostly because the film is shot with the intimacy of a character drama and, as Keaton said, tragedy is shot in close-up and comedy in long shot. Chuck & Buck certainly has some of the most startlingly consistent uses of close-ups I’ve seen since Carl Dreyer, and it could be argued it over-relies on them, not to mention that their pervasiveness doesn’t allow for any light-hearted, detached laughter. Yet, I’d argue that the film is stronger for it, because what could’ve been just another quirky character comedy turns into something much darker, deeper, and moving.
So perhaps the film would be more aptly categorized as a tragic comedy, as there’s certainly a profoundly sad element at work here in Mike White’s Buck. He’s a complex character, and Mike’s performance deftly brings out his many facets. The fact that the reactions and evaluations of his character are so diverse seems good proof of this; many critics found him far too creepy, maniacal, and downright weird to be sympathetic. Indeed, his obsessive stalking of Chuck is not an easy thing to excuse. Others have noted how discomforting they found him when he got around children, as if his desire to return to childhood could easily lead him to become a child molester. I can understand this perspective too, even though he never really shows any signs of doing such a thing.
But I’m more inclined to side with the critics that see him as a tragic example of an adult that can’t escape the psychological confines of childhood. For Buck, childhood was all he ever needed from life to find happiness. As is later revealed, he and Chuck experimented sexually when they were kids and, now, all these years later, he simply can’t move on from that. As his decorative collages show, it seems that besides Chuck, the only love he ever had in his life was from his parents. With both of them dead, it seems inevitable that he would latch on to Chuck as his last tie to the happiness of childhood. It’s as if somewhere in Buck’s adolescence or early adulthood he missed the off-ramp and now all he can do is turn around and go back the way he came in hopes of discovering how to stop driving in circles.
The motif of lost childhood and the dull drudgery of adulthood is all over the film. In one memorable encounter in Chuck’s office, Buck asks: “Remember when we used to play businessmen? Now you’re doing it for real… is it real, or does it still feel like a game?” The answer to the question isn’t really obvious; after all, what IS the difference between the games we play as adults compared to children? The only difference seems to be that the playground has gotten bigger, perhaps more complicated, but certainly less full of exuberance. Buck’s play serves as a perfect metaphor for a common artistic theme of recapturing the magic of childhood. It even takes on an almost Shakespearean level: “The play by Buck is where he’ll catch the conscious of his Chuck.” Yet Buck’s consistent failure also seems to present the futility of ever being able to “go back” in life, as much as Chuck’s stoicism seems to insist that “going forward” isn’t any better.
Writer/actor Mike White won an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for his performance, but deserved even wider recognition. As a writer, his most notable credits include Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks; the latter is certainly more comparable in quality and tone than the former. But it’s truly his performance that propels this film forward. His face is one of those that’s unforgettably unique and expressive. His droopy eyes, long albino eyelashes, and self-admitted snaggletoothed grin are almost supporting characters themselves. But it’s really White’s ability to nail the awkward, almost autistic movements, twitches, and mood changes that capture all of the film’s funniest and poignant moments, sometimes in the context of the same scene.
The supporting cast doesn’t quite match up to White’s level, though. Chris Weitz is a lifeless Chuck, and even though that lifelessness fits a character whose main purpose is to stand in stark contrast with Buck, he just can’t drudge up an ounce of sympathy. But I get the feeling that Chuck wasn’t meant to be quite so cold as Weitz plays him. This isn’t a bad guy, he’s just one of the many who have successfully integrated into the sea of adulthood. Lupe Ontiveros is more successful as Beverly, and it’s nice to see her playing a character who’s not a maid (seriously, look up her filmography on IMDb). She’s better as the “adult who takes Buck under her wing and encourages him to grow” than Paul Weitz’s Sam is.
There are some other problems to be found outside the supporting cast. The film wears its low budget on its sleeve; it was shot on video and the ugliness really shows. The music seems ripped straight out of a “quirky indie music guide for quirky indie films,” if such a guide existed. The pacing is problematic and the film frequently fails to emotionally segue between its light and heavy moments. Musical montages seem especially arbitrarily tacked on. Miguel Arteta’s direction is bland as well, not really adding much to the film except a faux-Cassavetes, free-flowing style that can’t really convince us that it’s anything but staged. There’s also a lack of narrative logic, and there are some really ugly moments (like Buck confronting Carlyn in the café) that should’ve been easy victims in the cutting room.
But all of these complaints belie the film’s emotional impact and depth and, in truth, I’d take a film that manages to affect me as much as this over most technically adept but emotionally hollow films. Chuck & Buck certainly isn’t light on emotional gut-punches: the scene where Chuck finally breaks down to Beverly after the play is quite potent, especially as it allows Beverly to reveal that he’s far from the only adult that’s messed up and has problems. Other moments are more subtle, and the eventual homosexual encounter between the two has a strange element of innocent fantasy to it. But more than even the emotive highs it’s the film’s achingly realistic portrayal of the left-of-center brand of perpetuated childhood that leaves its deepest mark.