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The Boston Phoenix Friends Forever?

Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck

By Scott Heller

JULY 24, 2000:  Twenty-seven going on seven, Buck is still camped out in his childhood bedroom, surrounded by Stra-tego and other board games, a styrofoam globe bursting with lollipops never far from reach. He's an emotional basket case, frozen in time and neediness. Yet like Pee-wee, he knows more than he lets on. Childhood is a hiding place, a refuge from adulthood, but also a vantage point for spying on grown-up desires. When the time is right, and the need for connection grows overwhelming, Buck can pounce. And he won't take no for an answer.

Fearlessly played by Mike White, who also wrote the script, Buck is the unforgettable center of Miguel Arteta's oddly comic character study. Shot in digital video, Chuck & Buck offers an unusual intimacy -- it's a great leap forward from Arteta's first feature, the Sundance-blessed Star Maps, which turned out messy and overwrought. Chuck & Buck whipped up a buzz at Sundance too, but this time the talk isn't cheap. If you've ever daydreamed about a long-lost friend, dialed a number, and then hung up when a voice answered, or nakedly confessed your love at just the wrong moment (and that makes all of us), then this is the must-see film of the summer.

For Buck, wondering isn't enough. When his mother dies, he reaches out and invites his best childhood pal, Chuck (Chris Weitz), to the funeral. Fifteen years have passed since the friends last played together, and their reunion is awkward. The geeky Buck stares a little too long, goggle-eyed that the kid with whom he romped in the woods has morphed into a handsome and self-assured man. As a writer and as an actor, White is unafraid to be unattractive. The way Buck watches Chuck is creepy. You want to know what's going on behind those glassy eyes and that open-mouthed, goony smile. Better yet, you don't want to know, for fear of what you'll discover. Chuck & Buck doesn't let you look away.

Chuck is everything Buck is not. He isn't even Chuck anymore. He's Charlie Sitter, a deal-making music-biz executive with a Hollywood address and an attractive fiancée (Beth Colt). He's a gallant guy, willing to pay respects to an old friend and then move along. But Buck won't leave it at that. He's not interested in the new and improved Charlie; he wants Chuck back. He makes a pass at his old friend and isn't deterred by the polite but firm rebuff. Instead, Buck insinuates himself into Chuck's life. He moves to LA, customizing a motel room with his toys and his vaporizer. He stakes out Chuck's office and visits his home unannounced. Finally, he decides to let art do the hard work. Stumbling into a children's theater across the street from Chuck's office, Buck decides to write a play with a message and hire the theater's box-office manager to direct it. Hank & Frank, it's called. He saves two front-row seats for Chuck on opening night.

Shaking off a nudgy friend is one thing. For all his contrived innocence and real pain, Buck is a stalker; you couldn't fault Chuck for taking out a restraining order on the guy, or at least punching him out. But this movie enables you to understand why Chuck does neither -- why he's willing to tolerate and accept, to draw the line and then smudge it a little. In a film that is idiosyncratically and superbly cast, Chris Weitz is the standout. It's a purely reactive performance, boasting none of the raw arias that White gives himself. With his perfect hair and clefted chin, Chuck has the gift of ease. He's a privileged creature who also happens to be good, like a fraternity president who truly believes in public service. Weitz comes to the role as an acting amateur but with some golden-boy baggage: he directed American Pie with his brother Paul, who appears in Chuck & Buck as the lunkhead actor Buck casts to play his friend.

If anything, Buck's drama skills are even more suspect than his social graces. Still, the scenes where his fantasy play is cast and produced allow White some marvelous exchanges with Lupe Ontiveros, who portrays the no-nonsense director-for-hire. The play is a "homoerotic, misogynistic love story," she bluntly tells him, and she's not far from the truth. The film asks us to identify with Buck's troubling desire, and to give a quiet cheer when he makes his friend watch the story he's chosen to spell out.

It's in that spelling-out that Chuck & Buck falters, forcing on the friends an encounter from their past that both have to acknowledge and replay. Chris Weitz's discomfort is never more palpable than when he's lured into bed by his once-best friend. Arteta shoots these difficult scenes beautifully. Yet sex limits the drama instead of opening it up; Chuck and Buck are channeled toward separate epiphanies that, though sweet and hopeful, feel unearned. Like the Tootsie Pop that's never far from Buck's mouth, Arteta's film goes a little soft at the core. Yet it leaves you plenty to chew on afterward.

Chuck, Buck, and Miguel

By some cosmic coincidence I don't want to think about, my best college friend e-mailed me out of the blue the day before I was to interview Chuck & Buck director Miguel Arteta. It's at least 10 years since Andrew and I had spoken, and emotions were still raw, on my part at least. According to the algebra of Arteta's film, I'm more the Buck, the friend nursing memories and wounds. Andrew is definitely a Chuck, a man seemingly at the top of his game. By this logic, I should have called out to him. Yet word came in the other direction.

"Hope you get this message. Hope you're well," he wrote. "I'll be in Boston this weekend. I hope we can get together."

A lot of hoping, underlining the tentative, hamfisted way old friends reach out to each other. Nothing, of course, compared to how the infantile Buck obtrudes upon his childhood friend in Arteta's disquieting film. I'd never think of doing that with Andrew. I couldn't imagine he would either. Then again, I never expected to hear from him. And, to be honest, I wasn't really sure I wanted to meet up.

I put the question to Arteta, who was groggy-sounding on the other end of the line in LA. Should this Buck make time for his Chuck?

"Absolutely," Arteta said. "Life's too short not to see what surprises come your way."

Although Arteta didn't write the screenplay for Chuck & Buck, he understands its single-minded hero -- you don't make two movies in four years, see them both premiere at Sundance, and get them nationally distributed without a healthy dose of obsessiveness. Following the left-field success of Star Maps, in 1997, Arteta flirted with a Hollywood studio assignment. Screenwriter Mike White, who had a small part in Star Maps, showed him the Chuck & Buck screenplay, but his advisers called it "career suicide." Yet when bigger projects fell through and Arteta was laid up in bed after two knee operations, Buck haunted him and wouldn't let go.

"The movie celebrates the twisted little child inside of us," the director explains. "That hits a chord with our generation." It used to be that people would check into therapy to grow up and achieve wholeness, he says. Not so with him and his friends. They see shrinks to get in touch with their spontaneous sides, to act on their impulses, to indulge childish whims. In one relationship that started up soon after Star Maps, Arteta and his girlfriend traded the role. "I was a Buck for a while, she was a Buck for a while." The romance is over: "Making Chuck & Buck taught me how to get out of an obsession."

Yet a film director can never fully shake the dynamic. "Most actors are like nine-year-olds. They know that 90 per cent of their job is to focus on their performance and they're 100 percent unwilling to do that." This cast was full of exceptions, perhaps because so few of the leading players are trained actors. White, the star, is better known as a producer of the television series Freaks and Geeks. And Chris and Paul Weitz are Hollywood heroes of the moment thanks to American Pie, which they wrote and directed. They're all old friends, connected by Wesleyan University.

Arteta ended up there after dropping in and out of Harvard, and after a year watching old movies at the Brattle Theatre. He played in his share of local bands, too, including a combo called You and Your Big Ideas. Their trademark? Performing in Abe Lincoln hats and beards. "If anybody out there saw us," Arteta says, "I just want to apologize."

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