In my school days we called them leeches. You couldn’t get rid of them; they wouldn’t take a hint. They were irritating people who failed to move on. They were trapped in another era while you had moved beyond their imagination. In Michael Arteta’s dark comedy, which premiered at Sundance last winter, Buck is that person in the extreme.
A gangly misfit with a nervous facial twitch, he still fills his room with childhood toys. He dresses and behaves as though he were still in grade school, sucking on his blow pop like a pacifier. The years have passed, but 27-year-old Buck has not progressed emotionally beyond the days when he was 11 years old camping out in the back yard with his best friend Chuck.
Buck’s problem is he can’t forget what happened between him and the slightly older Chuck in the back yard one day. He is completely obsessed by the incident that has become the defining moment of his life, and the root of all his subsequent neurosis. Because of that incident, Chuck has remained Buck’s raison d’Ãªtre, even though the two haven’t had any contact with each other in more than 15 years. When Buck’s mother dies, leaving him alone, he writes to Chuck, who comes to the funeral with his fiancée.
“I think of you all the time …s as kids,” Buck tells him awkwardly, before asking with boyish glee, “You wanna see my room?” Realizing that his childhood friend is a troubled young man suspended in a state of arrested development, Chuck politely tries to give the brush-off.
The polished Chuck, who has moved on to become a fast-rising executive in the music business, informs his erstwhile friend that he now goes by “Charles.” When Chuck gives Buck the old L.A. hug before he leaves, Buck’s hands slip shyly to Chuck’s butt. Buck’s longing is marked by homo-erotic undertones. In addition to being stuck in a time warp, being stupid beyond imagination and being an annoying pest, the child-like Buck is having trouble coming to terms with his sexual yearnings.
Shot on digital video, Arteta’s low-budget film, which was picked up by Artisan Entertainment for general release, has all the technical finesse of a student film. The cinematography is as uninspired as the acting. Arteta was aiming for intimacy by shooting on video, but the effect is woodenly amateurish. Non-actor Chris Weitz (he and his brother are the writing/producing team behind American Pie) is completely flat as Chuck. The film’s screenwriter Mike White (he was a writer for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks & Geeks) is so irritatingly pathetic as Buck that he never rouses much sympathy. That’s precisely the problem I had with Chuck & Buck. I never cared about either of these characters. I stuck around more out of curiosity than concern.
It’s obvious that White and Arteta were aiming for an emotionally affecting portrait of a misfit, but the film never worked for me. Even when Buck cries, “There’s no love for me,” his desperate plea fails to touch the audience.
Buck is so extreme—think of Don Knotts playing an incredibly stupid Chris Farley—that he becomes creepy. He packs up his matchbox cars and stuffed animals and moves to L.A. to be near his object of affection, stalking Chuck at home and on the job. Buck leaves messages on Chuck’s answering machine, which go unreturned. When Chuck finally leaves Buck a message saying he’s busy, the obsessed Buck plays it over and over again just to hear his voice.
In complete naivete and with blow pop lodged firmly in cheek, Buck goes to a small community theater across the street from Chuck’s office to see if he can put on a play. His only prior experience is the play he and Chuck put on as kids, The Devil and the Reindeer. But he scribbles a script based on his friendship with Chuck (He calls it Hank & Frank) onto a legal pad and pays the theater’s house manager $25 an hour to help him produce it. “I think you have something weird about women and something weird about men,” she tells him after reading his handwritten script.
Chuck and his girlfriend aren’t as swift. Chuck’s girlfriend is kind to Buck, but her kindness only encourages him. She invites him to a party, where he succeeds in humiliating himself by thanking people for talking to him. “I notice there’s no picture of me,” he says after snooping around the house. When Buck shows up unannounced at Chuck’s office, he finds it “weird” that his friend has made the transition to this grown-up world. “Remember when we played like we were businessmen?”
Buck should have been a sympathetic character, but under Arteta’s direction he’s so exaggerated that he’s merely stupid. Chuck is equally dim in his own way, and Arteta basically lets the unengaging Chris Weitz sleepwalk through the role.
When Buck drops in on Chuck at home, again unannounced, and suggests they play a childhood sex game, the film becomes incredibly tedious. Buck is clearly pathologically fixated, but it takes Chuck far too long to tell his emotionally stunted childhood pal to get lost.
“Remember, you’re an adult,” the stage manager chides Buck in one scene. That’s precisely the problem. He’s not. He never grew up. Arteta’s intentions are to make a film about boys who refuse to grow up, about friendship, obsession and sexual confusion, about the universal struggle between the person we want to be and the insecure person that deep down we’re afraid we really are. But, by the time the film reaches its resolution, you’ll be too weary of the whole setup to care.
Chuck & Buck (R) HH Directed by Michael Arteta. Starring Mike White and Chris Weitz.