Chuck & Buck (2000)
Written by Mike White
Directed by Miguel Arteta
Discomfort is a feeling often avoided in mainstream cinema. Movies made by large studios are interested in getting a return on profit, which usually involves making their products pleasant & easy to digest. Independent cinema in the late 1990s/early 2000s didn’t seem very interested in that route. For the most part, movies were transgressive, sometimes cleverly and other times in clunky, awkward ways. Even then, they tried to cater to their imagined audiences. Kevin Smith spoke to his fellow Gen X pop culture kids with Clerks while Tarantino delivered tense machismo in Reservoir Dogs. Neither of them really made the audience deeply uncomfortable beyond some sex or violence. Mike White was a different story, a writer/actor whose career is built around cringe.
Buck (White) has just lost his mother and invites childhood friend Chuck (Chris Weitz) to the funeral. Chuck brings his fiancee Carlyn along, and the encounter ends with Buck trying to touch his friend’s crotch in the bathroom. It’s not clear at first, but we begin to realize that the two men were sexually intimate as children. For Buck, this has been a defining experience in his life, fully embracing his sexuality. Chuck saw it as a passing phase and wants to live what he perceives to be a “normal” life. Buck can’t let go and cashes out his bank account to move to Los Angeles to be closer to Chuck. There’s a theater across the street from Chuck’s office, and Buck decides to write a play about them, put it on, and invite his friend in the hopes everything will be understood. But life doesn’t turn out that way.
There’s a cutesy veneer over the entire movie but is most certainly a dark comedy that is fearless about embarrassing its main characters and making the audience feel deeply uncomfortable. There is never a villain in the story, but you do have characters being terribly cruel, almost immediately regretting it or saying things because they are upset. In that way, it reflects how people really engage in challenging, uncomfortable situations. At first glance, this appears to be a story about unrequited love and heartbreak, but Mike White has so much going on underneath that.
Chuck & Buck is ultimately a film about allowing nostalgia to stop us from progressing as people. Buck brings along bags of artifacts from his childhood bedroom when he comes to Los Angeles. At one low point, he surrounds himself with these toys and baubles to derive comfort. The play he writes is a fairy tale interpretation of his situation with Chuck, framing Chuck’s fiancee as a wicked witch. The theater is putting on a production of the Wizard of Oz at another time, so the background during Buck’s play is the Yellow Brick Road going into Emerald City. It’s another visual signifier of wistful nostalgia.
At first, this feels like it might end up being a creepy dark comedy about Buck becoming a stalker, maybe hurting Chuck. But White is smarter than that and, while he does show Buck has stalker tendencies, the film is more human than exploitative. There’s a lot of question to the nature of what the men’s relationship was like as children. Did Chuck take advantage of Hank? During the play, Chuck’s analog expresses regret to Buck’s for having him eat magic cookies. He tells him he was too young to do that, and he took advantage of him. The arc here is how Buck will become a fully realized person, and that won’t happen until he works through these things that have kept him stunted.
Chuck & Buck ends on a hopeful note, the idea that we can move on from our traumas and find new places where we flourish. Through staging a play, Buck finds a family with the actors and the stage manager. He learns that creating art in a place where he can really soar, expressing difficult emotions, and finding connections with others. This is a pretty fantastic human-centered film that doesn’t lean into its indie quirkiness but relies on great performances and White’s solid script.