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Dave's Other Movie Log

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Chuck and Buck*

Following the death of his mother, the 27 year old, childlike Buck meets his boyhood buddy Chuck for the first time in many years, and unsuccessfully tries to grope him in the john after the funeral. This little promising augury notwithstanding, the infatuated Buck, fueled by still vivid memories of his days of pubescent experimentation with Chuck, withdraws $10,000 from the bank and heads off to Los Angeles where Chuck, who lives with his fiancée, Carlyn (Beth Colt), is an executive in the music industry. Unable to get it through his head that Chuck has forsaken the irregular delights of polymorphous perversity for the more socially acceptable ones of heterosexual monogamy, Buck launches a war of attrition with the purpose of winning back his lost love. 

Such is the highly shaky premise of the movie Chuck and Buck, directed by Miguel Arteta. A month or so ago, David Poland in The Hot Button included the film in a list of the ten worst pictures of the year so far. Last year, in his coverage of the Sundance Festival, when Chuck and Buck debuted, he offered a quite convincing critique of the film's morally dubious attempt to rationalize Buck's avid stalking of the reluctant Chuck. I completely agree with his objections, which I will not try to clumsily paraphrase here.  However, there were other things in Chuck and Buck that bothered me as much as the dramatic casuistry, and which I think are also worth discussing.

It might sound supercilious to call Chuck and Buck a gay Harold and Maude, but the films have a good deal more in common than just titles that sound vaguely similar. The older film was as much a pure product of the hippy era as Easy Rider, and the newer one, with its depiction of Buck as a kind of  naif  whose unworldly innocence borders on lunacy at times, still continues to tap into the faded flower power ideology of the 1960's. Chuck and Buck's one possible innovation over Harold and Maude lies in replacing the somewhat taboo relation between a young man and a much older woman with the still today far more taboo one between two adult males. 

In both films a rather improbable personal chemistry supplies the dramatic focus for the scenario: in Harold and Maude the attraction between the young suicidal Harold and the zany free spirit Maude and in Chuck and Buck that between the hunky, gregarious Chuck and the immature, inchoate Buck. However, this dramaturgically threadbare coincidentia  oppositorum, harking back to the days of screwball comedy, has seen better days and should probably be relegated to the refuse pile of discarded plot situations.

I must confess I am not especially a fan of Harold and Maude. By having Maude kill herself after having slept with Harold for the first time so that he can experience a bogus symbolic resurrection in the final reel--thereby defusing any threat of a long term affair between the two--the film just coyly dodges its most disturbing implications in the worst Hollywood fashion. Still, the film had formidable resources in the remarkable performances by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon in the lead roles, and in the talented direction of the prematurely deceased Hal Ashby. To say that Chuck and Buck has nothing comparable to fall back upon would  be a farcical understatement. 

As played by Chris Weitz, Chuck is sympathetic enough, but he differs not one whit from the kind of guy who might be found hanging out in a single's bar on a Friday night, and it's difficult to imagine him arousing anyone's passion--lust perhaps, but not passion. In the role of Buck, Mike White--who is also responsible for the screenplay--gives a far more arresting performance, but a little bit of Buck's intransigent naiveté as enacted by White goes a very long way. 

With one striking exception that I mention below, the rest of the acting ranges from blandly stereotypic (Beth Colt as Chuck's betrothed) to grating (Paul Weitz as an abusively misogynistic would-be thespian). But even more skilled performers would have difficulty in coping with Mike White's lines, which are sometimes leaden enough to have been penned by Buck himself. The combination of this flaccid dialogue with direction so pedestrian that Chuck and Buck's action occasionally seems destined to grind to a halt altogether makes viewing the movie an almost physically painful experience at moments. 

More than anything else, attending a showing of Chuck and Buck is like accidentally listening to a conversation that was never intended to be heard by the ears of strangers--an embarrassment rather than a pleasure. Nor does the list of Chuck and Buck's shortcomings end there. Enemies of digital cinematography will find plenty of ammunition for their complaints in this video to film production, many of whose images, with their sickly yellow, green, and gray hues, look as if they had been shot through a slab of moldy cheddar cheese.

If all of Chuck and Buck were this tedious, it would be impossible to make it through the film at all. Fortunately the screenwriter had one real inspiration. While hanging out across the street from the fancy building in which Chuck works, Buck discovers an amateur theater that is staging a production of The Wizard of Oz--shades of Wild at Heart! Although Buck seems not to have the least idea of what a play is, with the help of the theater's manager, Beverly Franco, he sets about composing a dramatized version of his unrequited passion for Chuck as a fairy tale. 

All of the scenes involving the staging of this play, which not surprisingly bears the title Hank and Frank and in which Carlyn figures thinly disguised as a witch, are far more lively and funny than anything else in the movie, and with their faint echoes of Nabokov momentarily push Chuck and Buck into a quite different artistic register. In no small part, this is owing to the participation of Lupe Ontiveros, who as Beverly gives the best performance in the movie. But sadly the movie gets no further in developing this idea than using it to lead up to a premiere which predictably fails to win back Chuck, although the play's success opens up a new vocation for Buck as a man of the theater.

In fact, Chuck and Buck's failure to do anything more interesting with this device of a play within its own screenplay is only typical of the stupefying lack of imagination which pervades the movie's concept as a whole, starting with its characterizations. Instead of making Buck such a one dimensional simpleton, wouldn't it have been more dramatically interesting  to have complicated the roles? Given the characterization of Buck, it hardly seems plausible that even a nice guy like Chuck would have put up with him for as long as he does. What self-respecting successful young dude, as Chuck is portrayed in the movie, would want to be caught dead in the company of a jerk  who goes around with a lollypop crammed in his mouth and possesses the social skills of Forrest Gump? 

Why not depict Buck as an attractive, outgoing type like Chuck himself, and Chuck as a trendy entrepreneur like the one played by Peter Fonda in Stephen Soderbergh's The Limey, frightened at the possibility of being outed if he showed any sign of giving in to Buck's unwelcome attentions? In and of itself, a subject like this has interesting dramatic possibilities which remain totally unexplored by a screenplay which settles for treating the story of Chuck and Buck as little more than the saga of a high school geek's crush on the captain of the football team.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to wholly dislike a film that plunges into its where-angels-fear-to-tread territory with such a mind-boggling lack of subtlety. Deviousness is certainly not one of Chuck and Buck's faults. One night Buck appears uninvited and unexpected  at Chuck and Carlyn's fancy digs; when she retires, Buck suggests playing games. "Like a trivia quiz?" Chuck asks. After asking if Carlyn can hear what they say, Buck proposes oral sex in the crudest way possible short of unzipping his fly and waving his penis in Chuck's face. 

Although there are times the film seems to be toying with the idea of presenting Buck as an embodiment of non-repressive desublimation, such a blatantly sexual declaration sounds bizarre when uttered by an otherwise minimally articulate character and more like the dialogue from a gay porno about fraternity brothers who discover they share a fond interest in water sports other than board surfing and H20 polo. Yet in a certain way, Chuck and Buck's very ineptness is almost disarming. Like American Beauty, Chuck and Buck is only playing around with serious themes, just as if it were a kid with the moral IQ of an idiot playing at throwing lit matches into a field of dry weeds. But it is mercifully devoid of the rottenly manipulative dishonesty of American Beauty: where the latter film had perfectly calculated just how far it could dare to go in scandalizing the audience, Chuck and Buck keeps blundering on into the darkness.

As Marcel Proust would have been the first to acknowledge, any attempt to recapture the past is fraught with the potential for tragedy. And this potential drastically increases when the the past to be recaptured involves experiences of passion. More than one great work of modern art--including some notable motion pictures--has depicted the predicament of characters who suffer from erotically charged memories of a past they can neither recapture nor escape from, but that predicament has rarely been rendered with such poignant concision as by Cole Porter in some nearly sublime lines from the lyrics to "Begin the Beguine":  "Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember,/Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember...."  

But if Freud was right, only death ever really extinguishes the permanently incandescent embers of desire. In its essence an obsessive passion like Buck's is the stuff tragedy is made of--which does not preclude the possibility of presenting the subject as comedy, although it does require the most acute kind of artistic sensitivity to carry it off. But these are truths which belong to another country, not the country in which Chuck and Buck takes place. The land of Chuck and Buck has more in common with the Rhode Island of Me, Myself & Irene where all problems have a happy ending than with the meditative autumnal landscape of The Remembrance of Things Past.

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E-mail Dave: daveclayton@worldnet.att.net

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