This summer radio listeners in the Boston area have had a steady diet of ads for a touring company of Peter Pan. The attention-grabber is a line from its most familiar song: I won’t grow up; I don’t want to go to school. Great fun for all the family. Günter Grass, however, might have been closer to the truth in The Tin Drum (1959). Not growing up, for a child, or as Grass would have it, for a people, has its dark, dark, dark side. Most of us know people who have not grown up. In its least toxic form, these children, hiding in sagging bodies, demand constant attention, relate all situations to their own self-interest and divert all conversations to themselves. The more serious manifestations involve irresponsibility, emotional instability, substance abuse and childlike dependence on others. In its extreme forms it can lead to violence and murder.
Chuck and Buck, one of the few adult movies of the summer season, dares to explore the question of arrested development and its disastrous consequences. The horrible title will surely guarantee a limited distribution, but it is a phrase constantly repeated by its childlike and childish main character, Buck (Mike White, who also wrote the script). It serves as a constant reminder of the character’s underdeveloped communication skills and tragically impoverished imagination.
During the opening titles, the camera pans around what appears to be a young boy’s bedroom, lingering on games, model planes and action dolls. It stops on Buck, as he folds laundry, and then in a fit of pique pushes the stack of clothes into a pile on the bed. Buck’s receding reddish hair and stained teeth indicate that he is adult, but the bemused smile and full lips suggest childlike, prepubescent innocence. He seems to subsist on lollipops. Later he reveals that he is 27.
In the next room, an older woman wrapped in blankets coughs relentlessly as she watches television. When the coughing stops, Buck finds himself alone in the world, with his toys, his games and his memories of Chuck, the one friend he ever had. He keeps alive the memory of the past when Chuck and Buck were inseparable friends. Charlie (as he now prefers to be called) Sitter (Chris Weitz) left the neighborhood when they were 11 and established himself as a successful music producer in Los Angeles. He drives a B.M.W. and shares a luxurious home with his beautiful and successful fiancée, Carlyn (Beth Colt). When he is informed about the funeral of his old friend’s mother, it is Carlyn who insists that they make the trip.
At the service, instead of weeping over the loss of his mother, Buck grins at the return of his friend. At the gathering after the funeral, Buck drinks rum and Coke and tries to renew contact by showing Charlie his room and his stuff. Carlyn, of course, joins them. Charlie grows restless at Buck’s child-like speech and behavior, but Carlyn softens their abrupt departure by a perfunctory invitation to visit them if he is ever in Los Angeles. Lacking the social skills to recognize a polite brush-off, Buck cashes in the remains of the family estate, packs his games and toys in the back of the car and heads off to the big city to join his friend.
Buck visits Charlie and Carlyn in their home, and slips past receptionists and guards to trap Charlie in his office. The more exasperated and evasive Charlie becomes, the more determined Buck is to revive their boyhood friendship of 16 years ago. One night, after Carlyn goes off to bed and Charlie tries to get Buck out of the house, Buck reveals that he really wants to relive an episode of childhood sexual experimentation they once had. His crude language has the shock value of an eight-year’s old telling his mother some new words he learned in the schoolyard. Outraged, Charlie throws him out of the house and tells him never to come back.
With all the pieces in place, Mike White develops the plot with an originality and inventiveness seldom seen in Hollywood movies, at least not in the summer. At several points, I was confident that I knew how this story would end in tragedy, and each time I was dead wrong. Think of the possibilities. Buck becomes an obsessive stalker, even peering through Charlie’s and Carlyn’s bedroom windows and calling every 15 minutes until they have the phone disconnected. Charlie becomes enraged and then frantic. Carlyn thinks she can be helpful, not realizing that Buck sees her as a rival for Charlie’s affection. Surely someone will be murdered, but who and how?
The possibilities for disaster multiply, however. Failing to reach Charlie directly, Buck rents a theater and writes a play, Frank and Hank, a story of boyhood friends. The cast includes several young boys, one of whom Buck befriends outside the theater. They relate like boyhood chums, and the danger lurking in this relationship becomes obvious even to the boy’s stage mother. At a casting session, Buck insists on hiring Sam (Paul Weitz, who is in fact the brother of the actor who plays Charlie), a singularly untalented, foul-mouthed actor from New Jersey. Sam has no experience and no agent, but he looks remarkably like Charlie; and for Buck, that is enough. Sam has built a tough-guy persona for himself, and appears aggressively straight, even to the point of violence at the slightest challenge to his macho image. As Buck begins to switch his fixation from Charlie to Sam, one can begin to anticipate the inevitable.
The actual ending takes an entirely different direction from any of those obvious possibilities. I found it overly slick and simplistic, but since Mike White had outwitted me so often, I was willing to accept it in the spirit of gotcha. He won as an artist; I lost as a sleuth. Therefore I won as a moviegoer.
In a very funny prelude to the credits, the director, Miguel Arteta, stages a mock interview with a construction worker in a hard hat. As the guy attacks a massive sandwich, he wonders how a movie can do without explosions and car chases. When he’s told it’s a film of character, he remains skeptical, as well he might, given the experience of every other film this summer.
Chuck and Buck succeeds precisely on the level of character. Mike White as Buck appears in dozens of close-ups, and as we gaze at that face we are torn by our own ambiguous feelings about him. Both monster and victim, he has not passed over the edge like Norman Bates in Psycho and become a menace to society, yet he holds an enormous capacity for ruining people’s lives. He arouses sympathy as a man tormented by his own inability to cope with the adult world, but how can someone so self-centered and oblivious to the lives of other people arouse anything but contempt?
Lupe Ontiveros as Beverly, the theater manager who stages Buck’s play, provides commonsensical wisdom, tough practicality, good humor and extraordinary compassion for her fledgling playwright. She more than any of the other characters succeeds in reaching Buck and encouraging him to try to build an adult life for himself. In many ways, she becomes the mother he has lost. The Academy rarely recognizes low-budget, limited-distribution films; but if it did, it would have a ready nominee for best supporting actress.
It may be too easy to write Buck off as a grotesque and look only at his arrested sexual development, as though that held the key to his character. Mike White and Miguel Arteta have a broader perspective in mind, I believe. Buck may be the child in all of us, looking frantically for love and feeling desperately incapable of finding it precisely on our own terms. Buck is a lonely man, and everything he does to break out of that loneliness drives people further away. Perhaps, since so many contemporary novelists and filmmakers turn to portraits of dysfunctional families and failed relationships, they may be telling us that in this age of Walkmans, mobile phones and on-line trading, we all risk becoming as solipsistic and underdeveloped in human relationships as Buck.