The Buck of Chuck & Buck is a 27-year-old man-child (Mike White) who sucks lollipops and speaks in a slow drawl that sounds as if he’s readying the sentences in his head before mouthing them. At times, he looks like a young Stan Laurel, and at first glance, you might think he has Laurel’s aloof innocence. When his mother dies, leaving him alone in her house with his old records and kid-stuff memorabilia, he attempts to reconnect with Chuck (Chris Weitz), a childhood friend who has moved away and whom he hasn’t seen in many years. Chuck was Charles back then; now he’s a slick record executive with a gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills and a fiancée (Beth Colt) to match. At the wake for his mother, Buck comes on to Chuck. Gently but forcibly rebuffed, Buck becomes a species of stalker, moving down the coast to be close to Chuck and insinuating himself into the man’s life.
If you think this all sounds like a demento erotic thriller, you’re half right. The other half – the message portion of the movie – is what we’re supposed to take home with us and mull over. Buck, you see, represents the childhood we must relinquish if we are to become responsible adults. Chuck, on the other hand, who is indeed responsible and adult, is portrayed as a kind of fraud, a reconstructed man who has become a “player” at the expense of his lost innocence. Chuck is the hotshot phony we misguidedly aspire to be, but Buck represents who we really are. Despite the air of menace in his goggle-eyed goofiness, Buck is the hero of the piece because he is still in touch with his inner child. To stay in touch, he doesn’t have to go very far.
The best sequences in Chuck & Buck, which was directed by Miguel Arteta, are the tense, creepy ones in which Buck preys on his friend. He has a nut-brain aplomb when he’s carrying out his schemes, and both as actor and as the film’s screenwriter, Mike White knows how to bring the audience into Buck’s confidences. Chris Weitz, on the other hand, makes Chuck so bland that you can’t figure out if he’s commenting on the guy or just being a bland actor. Because of this imbalance, Buck has practically all the movie’s best bits. (The rest of the best are stolen by Lupe Ontiveros as a local theater manager who sees through Buck with a maternal clarity.)
Buck remains, I think, a lot more disturbing than the filmmakers realize; their touchy-feely folderol prevents them from giving full dramatic license to their own best creation. How can we accept Buck as a poster child for reconciliation and forgiveness when, for example, he peers at night into Chuck’s window as Chuck makes love to his fiancée, or neglectfully allows a boy actor he has befriended to injure himself with firecrackers? This odd, uneven movie, with its trumped-up ending that makes zero emotional sense given what came before, is perplexing in the extreme. Experiencing it is a bit like being asked to accept dear old Norman Bates as Huck Finn.