[Screen It]

(2000) (Mike White, Chris Weitz) (R)

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Drama: A 27-year-old simpleton begins stalking his former childhood friend, hoping to rekindle the sexual games and experimentation they once practiced when they were kids.
Charlie Sitter (CHRIS WEITZ) is a successful recording industry executive who's just received a note from someone he hasn't heard from in years. It's from Buck O'Brien (MIKE WHITE), a 27-year-old simpleton whose mother had just died after a long illness. Although he hasn't seen Buck in sixteen some years, he and his live-in fiancée, Carlyn (BETH COLT), fly across the country to attend the funeral.

There, Carlyn learns that Buck and "Chuck" were once close childhood friends, and Buck seems to be a sweet natured, but lonely man. As such, she and Charlie invite him to visit them sometime in Los Angeles. Charlie, however, begins to think that was a mistake when Buck comes on to him sexually in a bathroom during the wake.

Despite Charlie then essentially closing any possibility of Buck visiting them, the persistent young man packs up his belongings - mostly childhood toys and mementos - and moves to L.A. Once there and setting up home in a motel, Buck starts stalking Charlie at home and at work, finally building up the courage to approach him once again.

Not surprisingly, Charlie isn't thrilled to see Buck or learn that he's moved close-by and wants to rekindle their close friendship. Despite Charlie giving him the cold shoulder, Buck continues with his efforts that include patiently waiting outside a children's theater playhouse across the street from Charlie's office.

There, he eventually meets Beverly (LUPE ONTIVEROS), the house manager, and after reading a script for "The Wizard of Oz," has an epiphany. He'll write a theatrical version of his previous and current relationship with Charlie, call it "Hank & Frank," and use it to show Charlie how he feels. Hiring Beverly to manage and direct the one-night production and untalented actor Sam (PAUL WEITZ) to play the part of Chuck, Buck hopes that his efforts will rekindle their friendship.

As the days count down to the play and Charlie and Carlyn try to get on with their lives despite Buck's persistent and growing obsession with Chuck, it's only a matter of time before things come to a head with big revelations about their past surfacing that cause the two men to ponder their past and future relationship together.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
As the old saying goes, nothing is certain in life save for death and taxes. Among the many uncertainties awaiting most people, at one or several points in their lives, are jobs, romances and even friendships that - for any number of reasons - turn sour and/or simply dry up and wither away. Childhood friendships are often the most tenuous since such relationships are usually founded more on the proximity of the kids involved, rather than their common interests or likes.

As such, it's rare for most of them to survive into adulthood, especially with friends moving away, meeting and then hanging out with others, or simply finding that they don't want or have the need for the friendship to continue. Of course, most all of us have wondered at some point about whatever happened to a certain childhood friend and whether whatever forged the initial friendship could be rekindled or reinvigorated after all of the intervening years.

Buck O'Brien is one of those people. A 27-year-old simpleton whose interest in a close - and we mean close - childhood friend is rekindled when they meet some sixteen years after last seeing each other, the character - appearing in director Miguel Arteta's "Chuck & Buck" - is symbolic of such longings and thoughts.

A humor-laced drama that could probably be interpreted in a variety of ways, the film features an intriguing premise and an impressive performance by Mike White as the deranged young man. Shot completely on digital video and what was presumably a shoestring budget (both contribute to the grainy/digitized, handheld look), it's unlikely this film will make it outside the art house circuit and its plot may be unsettling to some when not hitting too close to home for others.

As one character describes a parallel play that occurs within the film, the story is something of a homoerotic, misogynistic version of "Love Story." It's also something akin to a twisted, grade school induced variation of "Fatal Attraction." That's because instead of Glenn Close stalking Michael Douglas after an affair, this one involves a young man still fixated on a childhood friend and the sexual games and experimentation they performed while in elementary school.

While that may sound dark, disturbing and ultimately depressing - at it is to a degree - the seriocomic way in which director Arteta ("Star Maps," various TV episodes) and writer/lead actor White (one of the producers for TV's "Dawson's Creek" and "Freaks and Geeks") tell their story takes a bit of the edge off the proceedings. Thus, what could have been a run of the miller stalker flick turns into something more, especially since the troubled protagonist is portrayed as sympathetic instead of solely coming off as nothing more than a perverted creep.

The occasionally humorous approach obviously helps in doing that, and while there are no drop-dead hilarious moments (which is somewhat surprising considering the presence and track record of two of the film's costars, Chris and Paul Weitz - the brotherly directing team behind "American Pie" and co-writers of "Antz" and "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps"), there are enough amusing ones to keep things on a somewhat lighthearted level throughout. Considering the subject matter, that's a good thing, although the film smartly doesn't mock or use the disturbing, underlying thread of childhood sexual experimentation as a basis for comedy.

What the filmmakers successfully do, however, is keep the viewer off balance at most times. While the protagonist never shows any outward signs of the potential for physical violence, there are hints that he could snap at any moment and consequently harm or perhaps even kill himself, his friend and/or that man's fiancée. That's especially true for that latter character since he sees her as the competition for his affection when not viewing her from a kid's perspective of being just another possession or plaything.

The resultant mixture of humor, potential mayhem and the revelation of deep, dark secrets does successfully manage to maintain one's interest in the film and its eventual outcome that fortunately - for the film and the viewer - is in doubt pretty much up to the last moment. Even when properly executed, predictable films are often little fun to watch. Thus, for viewers who like being kept on their toes and/or in the dark about how things will turn out, this release should prove to be quite enticing in that respect.

The one area where the film isn't quite so successful, however, is in the protagonist's staging of a symbolic play to show how much the object of his attention has wronged him. Granted, an adult fixated on their childhood and sporting a kid's mentality could come up with such an idea. Yet, beyond the fact that "Hamlet" and about a thousand or so other films and TV sitcoms have previously used the same plot device, the way in which it's presented here somewhat diminishes the proceedings.

While it does offer a few laughs - such as the play's title, "Hank & Frank," obviously being a kid's attempt at subtle humor and/or disguising the matter - the resultant play isn't funny, disturbing or touching enough to warrant the attention given to it.

Fortunately, the scenes surrounding the play involve the inclusion of Lupe Ontiveros ("As Good As It Gets," "Selena") and the aforementioned Paul Weitz as the Latino playhouse manager turned director and the untalented actor with whom she's forced to work respectively. Initially present as comic relief, the characters also serve as catalysts for Buck's eventual growth, and the performers are quite good in their roles.

As previously mentioned, White delivers a knockout performance as the deranged and troubled young man. Adopting the look and childhood-like spirit of a confused Chris Elliot (redundant perhaps, but accurate), White's performance is so dead-on that you never once think or feel that he's acting. Playing his counterpart, Chris Weitz is credible and sports a believable blank look of incredulous horror and amazement of being stalked by a former friend and past he'd rather forget.

While later developments regarding his character somewhat strain and stretch credibility - his behavior would have been easier to accept and understand with better-developed and staged reasons - Weitz delivers a solid performance. The same holds true for Beth Colt (a real-life film producer) as his understanding and patient fiancée.

The film obviously won't appeal to most mainstream moviegoers' viewing tastes and may be too disturbing to other viewers. Nonetheless, for those desiring an offbeat and intriguing look at the meaning and abandonment of friendships coupled with a strong central performance and just enough humor to make the proceedings more palatable, this may be a picture worth exploring. As such, "Chuck & Buck" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 5, 2000 / Posted July 21, 2000

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