CHUCK & BUCK

Directed by Miguel Arteta

Written by Mike White

With White, Charles Weitz, Lupe Ontiveros and Paul Weitz

Distributed by Artisan Entertainment

***1/2



A spiritual descendant of American comedies of embarrassment like Jerry Lewis' THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and Elaine May's A NEW LEAF, CHUCK & BUCK also recalls French Miserable Arthouse Sex films like Catherine Breillat's ROMANCE and Cédric Klapisch's L'ENNUI (although it contains no explicit sex), numerous depictions of unfulfilled gay desire (especially Dennis Cooper's novel TRY, about  an abused teenager in love with  a straight junkie) and the Farrelly brothers' farces of male sexual anxiety. Like THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, CHUCK & BUCK uses  music by Jonathan Richman, but Arteta's choice of the 1976  "Astral Plane," rather than  Richman's later, fluffier songs, says volumes about the differences between his film and MARY.  In fact, CHUCK & BUCK comes closer than any film I've seen recently  to the uncomfortable honesty and frankness with which Richman's first album, THE MODERN LOVERS,  encapsulates  male vulnerability.

Following the death of his mother, the terminally nerdy, socially awkward 27-year-old Buck (White) re-establishes contact with his best childhood friend, Charlie Sitter (Charles Weitz),  now  a yuppie music industry executive in L.A. Feeling the tug of their brief sexual relationship, Buck suddenly decides to move to L.A. and force himself upon his old pal "Chuck,"  who's on the verge of getting married and wants nothing to do with Buck. Out of  desperation for his affection to be returned  and ignorance of how badly his actions look to everyone else, Buck begins stalking Chuck. When this doesn't produce the results he hoped for, Buck stops by a children's theater across the street from Chuck's office. With the aid of Beverly (Ontiveros), he writes and directs FRANK & HANK, a play about their relationship described accurately by her as a "homoerotic, misogynistic love story", casting a terrible actor (Charles Weitz's brother Paul, the director of AMERICAN PIE) only because he looks just like Chuck, and inviting Chuck and his fiancee to attend.

Arteta's undistinguished direction, which fails to exploit any of digital video's real  potential  and usually looks dim and slightly fuzzy (if not outright ugly), leaves me with no doubt that White is the real auteur behind CHUCK & BUCK.  However, White takes control of his character skillfully enough to prevent Buck from looking like a one-dimensional freak. (In this respect, his performance is a bit more nuanced than his writing.)  A twitchy guy with little control over his speech, facial expressions or body language, Buck  seems so dim that I wondered if he was slightly retarded, yet White also suggests a reserve of underlying guile that ensures  he gets what he wants most of the time. Charles Weitz, who strongly resembles the twentysomething Tom Cruise, doesn't suggest that there's anything more to Chuck than his bland pretty-boy facade, but this emptiness suits the part, because Chuck comes across largely as a screen onto which Buck can project all his baggage, while his brother Paul is hilarious as the talentless - and possibly closeted, despite his rejection of Chuck's advances - actor, who makes Chuck look like a Mensa candidate. As the only character with a functioning bullshit detector and the willingness to speak her mind, Beverly gives a much-needed edge of reason to the film, acting as its presiding conscience.

Gay spectators looking for "positive images" of  same-sex desire aren't likely to be very sympathetic to CHUCK & BUCK. While it received glowing reviews in THE VILLAGE VOICE and NY PRESS, LGNY critic Aaron Krach accused Arteta of homophobia and the hosts of the cable news show GAY USA found the concept  dubious enough to criticize it sight unseen.   (Interestingly, White's father is a conservative minister and former Jerry Falwell speech writer who came out of the closet to become a gay activist a few years ago. I don't know if White is gay himself, but he told the VOICE that the film is  not autobiographical.) Initially, I agreed with these qualms, especially since Arteta seems to establish visual links between Chuck's arrested development and his homosexuality by having him play with a rainbow-colored slinky and constantly suck on phallic lollipops. Yet the film ultimately avoids suggesting that there's anything inherently  pathological or immature about homosexuality. Buck's problem isn't that he's attracted to men, but that he's obsessed with one man who's very reluctant - with good reason - to respond in kind.  He  may be stuck in first gear, but Chuck's  seemingly exclusive adult heterosexuality  comes to seem like an equally immature refusal of wider possibilities. Furthermore, the film's theme of being unable to evolve past childhood  says as much about the way passion can make  all of us act like needy children as it does about one fucked-up individual. As the Buzzcocks asked, ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with? If so, you may be as moved  by CHUCK & BUCK as I was.

X-MEN, which opened the same day as CHUCK & BUCK, offers  a  wish-fulfillment fantasy  of geeky misfits, who can easily be seen as crypto-gay, becoming glamorous heroes and finally finding a real family. While this fantasy  appeals to me no less than the fanboys that have made it a huge hit, the loneliness and hopeful but inconclusive ending presented in CHUCK & BUCK hit much closer to home. It's fair to complain, as some critics have, that Arteta and White play it safe by emphasizing Buck's essential  innocence and milking his worst behavior more for pathos than menace. (They certainly don't share Cédric Klapisch's willingness to make his  equally obsessive "hero" completely unsympathetic.) But they also take  Buck's passion seriously, even while treating it comically.  Although their optimism feels slightly forced, it's refreshing to see  Indiewood filmmakers err on the side of kindness and respect towards their characters - especially since Beverly is the only one who's particularly smart or perceptive - rather than Solondz/LaBute-style cynical snarkiness. Without being in the same league as  Jean Eustache's THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, it nevertheless lives up to  Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1974 description  of that masterpiece: "the film's compulsive picking at wounds reveals a genuine impasse, a tragic lack in ourselves that cinema seldom admits, much less describes."