Chuck and Buck



US 1999
dir. Miguel Arteta
scr. Mike White
cin. Chuy Chavez
stars Mike White, Chris Weitz
96 minutes

This must be the saddest film of the year. Though there are laughs throughout Chuck and Buck, the film’s tone is much too uneasy for it to be called a comedy. You keep expecting it to head down dark avenues towards murder, catastrophe, paedophilia, or, more likely, a combination of the three – and even though it instead moves towards a surprisingly upbeat ending, there’s plenty of tension generated along the way. This tendency recalls another current digital-camera release, Marc Foster’s Everything Put Together, a domestic-tragedy picture which hovers on the edge of supernatural melodrama without ever actually crossing the line.

The central character here is Buck (scriptwriter White), a 26-year-old who seems to have the mental development of a kid half his age. It’s as if his mind got stuck in its groove 15 years ago, on the day his best friend Chuck (Weitz) moved away. Now a successful LA record industry exec, Chuck – or rather Charlie – returns to Oregon for the funeral of Buck’s mother, and Buck mistakenly takes this as a cue to re-start the old friendship. Charlie doesn’t want to play along and, disturbed by Buck’s intimacy, returns to LA with his fiance, Carlyn (Beth Colt). But Buck isn’t easily dissuaded, and sets off in pursuit…

From this point on Chuck and Buck takes numerous unexpected twists, some of which strain believability: not only is the otherwise childlike Buck capable of driving a car, he also writes a play dramatising his relationship with Chuck/Charlie. Staging the play with the help of theatre house manager Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), he casts talentless but good-looking ‘actor’ Sam in the ‘Chuck’ role – Sam played by Paul Weitz, real-life brother of Chris Weitz (the pair directed American Pie). The film appears to suggest that Buck, who’s had no sexual outlet since his childhood ‘games’ with Chuck, is going to molest one of the kids he’s cast as Chuck’s younger self, and/or that his homosexual advances towards Sam are going to be met with violent, perhaps even murderous consequences.

Thankfully, the film isn’t as predictable as it sometimes seems. None of the characters are quite what we expect – Charlie’s ‘responsible adult’ act hides an emotional underdevelopment almost as damaging as Buck’s. Buck ‘reveals all’ to Carlyn, who breezily takes it in her stride and offers constructive advice rather than outrage. Even the initially unsympathetic Sam and Beverly reveal more sensitive sides – though it’s unfortunate that Beverly continues to milk Buck for $25 an hour to direct the play and never comes clean about the way she exploits his inexperience.

Chuck and Buck is an interesting, unusual script – often recalling the vaguely similar Love and Death on Long Island – given brisk treatment by director Arteta. He makes good use of close-ups, keeping his digital camera steady as the actors explore the dimensions of their characters. But the tone is too uncertain, and the ending a little too sentimental, for the picture to be anything more than a divertingly small-scale character piece: too funny for drama, too dark for comedy.