By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 21, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

At first, Chuck & Buck sounds like a deeply sick joke — and indeed it is, but it’s also the most resonant and haunting movie I’ve seen this year. Buck (Mike White), the central figure, is a pale, gawky, carrot-topped man-child who has spent most of his life clinging to the moment he was 11 years old, when he was special (very special) best friends with Chuck, a kid in his class who has long since gone on to other things.

Chuck (Chris Weitz) is now a Los Angeles music-industry executive with a beautiful fiancee (Beth Colt) and a finely honed attitude of hip capitalist moxie. He wants nothing to do with this pathetic case of arrested development who still dresses like a nerdy sixth grader, sucks on Blow Pops as if they were sugary sexual pacifiers, and dotes on cut-and-paste photo collages of his youth. Buck, who likes to play his favorite kiddie record (the insidiously infectious chorus goes, ”Oodley-oodley oodley-oodley oodley-oodley fun fun fun!”), speaks in the lazy, singsong cadences of prepubescence, when kids haven’t yet learned the art of calculating how to present themselves. He’s an overgrown goofy child, but he’s consumed by a single passion. To Buck, his friendship with Chuck is more than just a memory: It’s life itself — it’s the paradise from which he’ll fall and crash if he ever allows himself to grow up.

Mike White, the star of Chuck & Buck, also wrote the script, and if he doesn’t look like an actor, that’s because up ’til now, at least, he hasn’t been. (He has worked mainly as a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks.) White has a genially boyish, squished-froggy face, with barely visible downy eyelashes and a skewed-toothed leer of a smile. He could be Jerry Seinfeld’s runty cousin, yet there’s a dazed and disquieting sensuality to his eyes. The trick of the movie is this: Buck may have the mind of a child (whenever he’s rejected, he lapses into tears), but he has the hormones, and the instinctual predatory cunning, of an adult. When his mother dies, he packs up his toys and his record player and moves to L.A., where he begins to pester his old friend, visiting his office and calling him around the clock. He also scrawls out and stages a fairy-tale play, hilariously revealing in its sub-Ed Wood naivete, about their lost garden of friendship. Buck may be living in denial of his adulthood, but Chuck, we sense, is in denial of something else. Adulthood is all that means anything to him.

In form, Chuck & Buck is an idiot-savant stalker comedy, not unlike, say, What About Bob? Yet if the result is often joltingly funny (attending a party at Chuck’s, Buck, completely inept at small talk, says, ”I like your house. It’s very…old person-y!”), it’s also bristling with a kind of kinky suspense. Outlandish as it is, the movie is played absolutely straight, and that’s its deadpan brilliance. The director, Miguel Arteta (Star Maps), shot Chuck & Buck on digital video, and though it’s framed like a conventional feature, with none of the frazzled, handheld flamboyance of the Dogma 95 films, you feel the presence of the video camera in the virtuoso, documentary-like intimacy that Arteta achieves with his actors. Mike White gives a phenomenal performance, and that’s partly because the movie, with its digital elementalism, allows us to register every complex tic and quaver of Buck’s shyly stuttering yet emotionally naked psycho-Howdy Doody persona. Buck, with a gaze of wonder that teeters into something like lust, is profoundly innocent and profoundly creepy at the same time. Between those poles lies something rich and mysterious — a dream of childhood love at once perverse, forbidden, and achingly true.

At times, the screw-loose peephole humanism of Chuck & Buck is reminiscent of Todd Solondz’s Happiness, except that Arteta harbors no impulse toward caricature. His intimacy extends to everyone on screen, from Chuck the beleaguered yuppie hotshot to the scene-stealing Lupe Ontiveros as Beverly, the no-nonsense theater manager who helps Buck stage his play. As the movie goes on, we’re lured into Buck’s romantic, nearly Proustian dream of a boyhood friendship that’s more freeing in its happy-time ”fun” than anything the world of maturity allows. A viewer’s reaction will ultimately pivot on the moment when Chuck, back in Buck’s room, says, ”I remember everything,” and then proceeds to relive it. For some, what follows may appear far-fetched, but I felt as if I were watching the past literally come to life. That’s about as close to magic as contemporary movies get. A

Chuck & Buck

  • Movie
  • R
  • 95 minutes
  • Miguel Arteta