The bewildering penchant of recent American movies for glorifying the lovable naif, the perpetual adolescent, and the village idiot takes a strange new turn in Miguel Arteta's dark comedy Chuck & Buck. Arteta's hero, Buck O'Brien (Mike White), is a 27-year-old man-child who eats lollipops all day long, takes refuge in a toy-strewn bedroom listening to his favorite teenybopper tune over and over, and generally avoids maturity with the ferocity of a sixth grader who's been denied an extra scoop of ice cream. With his saucer eyes and little-boy shuffle, Buck's the very picture of arrested development, and we are invited to embrace his infantilism just as we were invited to embrace that of Forrest Gump or Peter Pan.
Just one catch: Our Buck is all unfettered id. When his sick mother dies, the powerful attraction he's always had to his childhood best friend, Chuck Sitter (Chris Weitz), explodes into sheer obsession.
There's plenty of quirky sweetness and offbeat humor in this tale about growing up and moving on, but the way you take to it will likely depend less on your sexual orientation than on your tolerance for childish fixation. It soon becomes clear that the purest, most authentic moments of Buck's life were the boyish sex games he and Chuck played when they were 11-year-olds, and Buck has been desperately trying to preserve them ever since. To that end, he traces Chuck to Los Angeles, where he is now "Charlie" and comes furnished with all the trappings of yuppie success: a slick job as a record producer, a BMW, and a pretty fiancée named Carlyn (Beth Colt). The last thing Charlie needs in his fast-lane life is a nagging reminder of childhood that refuses to go away. When single-minded Buck starts hanging around Charlie's office, looking through his bedroom windows, and calling at all hours of the night, Charlie is driven over the edge. So are we. Something has to give, and it would probably be best if each of the old friends did some of the giving.
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Director Arteta is no stranger to peculiar material: His debut film, Star Maps, was the story of a movie star wannabe who's forced by his own father to work in a male prostitution ring. With Chuck, the Puerto Rican born Arteta again tests the borders of taboo, but he has lots of help -- most of it from a former classmate at Wesleyan University. White, who has been supervising producer for the teen heartthrob TV series Dawson's Creek and for the edgier Freaks and Geeks, wrote the screenplay as well as portraying the likable, maddening Buck at full tilt. The movie, which was shot quickly on digital video, is not only a caution about failing to grow up, it's also a preachment about growing up too fast -- and failing to take responsibility for the past. In important ways Chuck is as incomplete as Buck. The lesson may not be new, but it's retold here in a startlingly original fashion: Combine a child's stubborn wonderment with a grownup's sense of order, and you have a pretty interesting person.
Both characters need to develop and to strike a better balance, and one of the ways they do it is through the play-within-the-movie that Buck furiously scribbles onto yellow legal pads over the course of a few frenzied days. Like Hamlet, he manages to catch the conscience of his audience -- namely Chuck. Hank & Frank is, of course, a scantly disguised account of Buck's unrequited puppy love, the pain of his rejection, and his resentment of the woman who has come between old friends -- set in a magical forest with all the witches and goblins appropriate to an 11-year-old's imagination.
A couple of the movie's most hilarious (and touching) scenes involve the play's sympathetic producer-director, Beverly (Lupe Ontiveros), who's mounting the show (for a little piece of Buck's inheritance) on the open stage of a neighborhood theater. One performance only. "It's a homoerotic, misogynistic love story," Beverly tells him. Naturally Buck gives her one of his famous blank stares and explains that it's a fairy tale. He's right, too. And when he insists on casting a terrible actor in the Hank/Chuck part purely because he looks so much like the real Chuck, it's hard to argue with his innocent but powerful logic. Buck's no dramatist: He's simply telling the story of his life. Wisely Arteta chose Chris Weitz's real-life brother, Paul (another Wesleyan pal), for the part.
Under someone else's guidance, Chuck & Buck might have had a creepy and pathological air about it, but Arteta and White manage to bring off both the comedy and the tenderness in this tale of a jilted friend who sticks to his passions like chewing gum to a shoe. Suffice it to say that Buck O'Brien has more dangerous potential than Forrest Gump and, over time, develops as much appeal as that beloved "excellent driver" in Rain Man. This is not a movie for everyone, but it just might grow on you.