Friday July 14, 2000

     Watching "Chuck & Buck" is like watching a tightrope walker: One slip-up and the film would surely plummet into incredibility or sheer tastelessness.
     Yet writer Mike White, who plays Buck, and director Miguel Arteta never stumble as they traverse a very high wire. Not everyone will be willing or able to go the distance with them, but those who do are giving themselves a chance to experience a fresh, original sensibility in White--both as a writer and as an actor. Arteta, whose debut film was the offbeat "Star Maps," has a sensitivity equaled by his daring. It is ever the case: The riskier the film, the richer the payoff--provided that everything works.
     When we first meet the 20-something Buck, a boyish, nerdy redhead with a dying mother, he is so childlike as to seem mentally disabled. When she does die, in their splendid vintage Spanish colonial estate in the Montecito-Santa Barbara area, all Chuck has to cling to are his toys. So it's not surprising that he swiftly embraces his boyhood best friend, Chuck (Chris Weitz), whom he has invited to the funeral.
     They haven't seen each other in more than 15 years, since Chuck moved away with his family. Chuck is now at the acme of L.A. upward mobility: He's a handsome music executive with an elegant home and a beautiful live-in fiancee, Carlyn (Beth Colt), he is about to marry. Chuck is startled, to say the least, that when Buck does embrace him he also gropes him, prompting Buck's quick departure--but not before Carlyn, unaware of the incident, thoughtfully invites Buck to come visit sometime.
     She might as well have shot Buck out of a cannon. In no time, he withdraws $10,000 from the bank and heads for Los Angeles, settling in a modest motel room and swiftly making himself a pest in Chuck's life, at his office as well as his home. Chuck, who now calls himself Charlie, and Carlyn are decent, well-mannered people who do not want to be unkind to Buck yet are soon fervently eager to discourage him. Buck, however, is not one to fold his tent easily, and one day while hanging around Chuck's office, which looks to be in a posh Sunset Strip office building, he is drawn to the children's theater across the street. He's suddenly inspired to write a play, with which he intends to impress Chuck and once again be in his good graces.
     Buck approaches the theater's house manager, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), and offers her enough money so that she can't say no. Beverly is under the impression that as an adult Buck surely must realize that the play, which is to be staged only once, is, in her words, a "homoerotic, misogynistic love story"--not exactly children's theater. It's to be called "Hank & Frank"--and Hank's wife is an evil witch out to destroy Hank and Frank's friendship.
     Long before this point, you'll be asking yourself what's going on with Buck. The film surely has all the makings of a "Fatal Attraction," only to take off in an unexpected direction. White gradually peels away layer by layer to reveal Buck as a case of arrested development--the product of a dysfunctional family whose world stopped expanding when Chuck moved away, then shattered completely with Buck's mother's death. Buck is single-minded: He is in love with Chuck. But just how dangerous is Buck to himself or to Chuck--or even Carlyn--and how will Chuck deal with so obsessive an individual?
     Let's just say that "Chuck & Buck" flies in the face of contemporary paranoia and celebrates life's possibilities without losing touch with reality or slipping into sentimentality. Maybe people, even men, can actually grow up. Maybe lives can take new directions. "Chuck & Buck" asks us to question assumptions, to look at people, situations and ourselves in new ways that will inspire us to take risks.
     White and Arteta stir this all up amid a mix of wild humor and genuine sentiment, and their film demands the utmost of their actors in sustaining that all-important suspension of disbelief. White's Buck comes on as pathetic bad news, and just when he's at his scariest he starts seeming to be more than that. Weitz has the tricky business of embodying archetypal L.A. cool and success without slipping into caricature. Ontiveros, a great character actress in one of her best parts, must seem caring of Buck without seeming dumb not to regard him as outright crazy. And far from being his enemy, Colt's intelligent Carlyn is the person who understands Buck the best. Paul Weitz's Sam, a New Jersey carpet layer cast by Buck as Hank despite the fact he has scant discernible acting ability, provides the film with some of its funniest moments. (Brothers Chris and Paul Weitz produced and directed "American Pie," and Chris appeared in "Star Maps.")
     "Chuck & Buck's" other equally inspired elements--cinematography, music, production design and editing, etc.--blend in seamlessly with a film that is all of piece, to a degree that is as essential as it is impressive. "Chuck & Buck" succeeds because it turns out not to be the movie it might so easily have been.


Chuck & Buck, 2000. R, for sexuality and language. An Artisan Entertainment & Blow Up Pictures presentation. Director Miguel Arteta. Producer Matthew Greenfield. Executive producers Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente. Screenplay Mike White. Cinematographer Chuy Chavez. Editor Jeff Betancourt. Music Joey Waronker, Tony Maxwell, Smokey Hormel. Costumes Elaine Montalvo. Production designer Renee Davenport. Set decorator Isabelle Stamper. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Mike White as Buck. Chris Weitz as Chuck. Lupe Ontiveros as Beverly. Beth Colt as Carlyn. Paul Weitz as Sam.