Chuck and Buck is the Smartest Comedy of the Year

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Chuck & Buck Directed by Miguel Arteta How much of comedy is tied to embarrassment? A minority perhaps, but a robust, memorable one. As for the ways comic embarrassment involves movie protagonists, there are perhaps only two basic flavors. In the first, the protagonist is a screwy-but-likable comic hero and it's the situation that's embarrassing. Picture Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy or Jim Carrey with their tuxedo pants around their ankles and ear-to-ear grins of frozen horror on their faces as hundreds of wedding guests turn crimson: the prototype is instantly recognizable from scads and decades of Hollywood movies. Riskier, rarer and much more volatile in its artistic potential is the second kind of embarrassment comedy, wherein it's not the situation but the character that's cringe-inducing. Picture Rupert Pupkin. (Please!) But to really get the point, picture a Rupert who doesn't imagine that he's an hilarious entertainer and who's played by a shlubby nobody rather than Robert De Niro.

    This sort of comedy attracts relatively few aspirants, one assumes, because it's doubly challenging. For one thing, it puts the viewer on the spot by asking that we remember a time or times when we were deeply embarrassed, and perhaps didn't even realize how ridiculous we looked to others. Second, the viewer never knows where the whole thing will lead. Having an embarrassing protagonist is like an opening credits billboard reading "Okay, folks, all bets are off." The genre road maps?with their implicit reassurances?go out the window. If the main character can do anything shame-wise, we are obliged to contemplate a prospect of endless mortification, and there's no guarantee it won't be mortal. Given that, every moment in the story feels like a shaky step on a tightrope stretched across an abyss of nightmarish possibilities that most of us wish we'd left in high school or at the therapist's, whichever came last.

    I introduce Miguel Arteta's Chuck & Buck in this way not because I'm embarrassed to say I think it's a terrific film but because its achievements are of the quicksilver, impossible-to-categorize sort. By its end it had convinced me that it's easily the smartest, most original and alarmingly amusing comedy of the year to date. But that was after the final credits rolled. Up until then, I spent much of the movie in comedy's equivalent of existential dread, unsure if I'd make it to the other side of that tightrope?unsure even if the filmmakers would.

    Buck (Michael White), the embarrassing half of the film's eponymous duo, is the kind of kid who'd squirt milk through his nose in fourth grade, and by eighth grade would be universally shunned as the planet's goofiest loser. He's now 27, a blond, slackjawed weenie who seems to live in suspended animation. In the opening scene, his mom gives a few hacking smoker's coughs and dies. Buck sits down and writes a letter to his childhood best friend Chuck (Chris Weitz), asking him to attend the funeral. Though the two haven't seen each other for years, Chuck, a sleek Tom Cruise type with a fiancee on his arm, obliges. Buck is thrilled to see his old friend. So thrilled that at the wake he gropes Chuck's ass.

    Not surprisingly, Chuck fends off the advance and hightails it back to L.A. Buck sells off his mom's stuff and follows him. When Buck shows up in his life as if he's ready to move in, Chuck quickly goes from wary-but-friendly to chilly-and-exasperated. Buck, though, is not a man to be deterred. He parks himself on the sidewalk across from Chuck's office and waits.

    As it happens, the sidewalk is in front of a little theater that's staging a kids' production of The Wizard of Oz. Buck takes a look and gets an idea. Though an inexperienced playwright, he writes a kids' play and pays for the theater's crusty, seen-it-all house manager, Beverly (a wonderful performance by Lupe Ontiveros), to stage it. The play, which Beverly aptly calls a misogynistic homoerotic fantasy, is titled Hank & Frank. Buck invites Chuck and his fiancee to opening night, hoping that dramatic revelation will lead to the outcome he desires most: a resumption of the best-buddies sexual relationship he and Chuck had at age 11. Needless to say, the play is mortifying beyond belief.

    Chuck & Buck was written by Michael White, whose deadpan, naturalistic script and brave performance as Buck expertly target every viewer's ambivalences. On one hand, you want to throw an arm around Buck and shield him from the disappointments that life is aiming in his direction. On the other hand, you figure a swift kick might dislodge some of the idiotic delusions that leave him so open to ridicule. This seesawing reaction?the tightrope we negotiate?has everything to do with why, oddly but instructively, Chuck & Buck doesn't come off as a "gay film." When you have a grown man who wants to sustain the sexual relationship he had with a pal at age 11, it scans as a story about the desire to remain in childhood, not about sexual orientation. On some level, we are all Buck. For that matter, our entire, increasingly infantile culture is Buck.

    At the same time, the fact that the childish protagonist's desire is homosexual provides the filmmakers their own opportunity for embarrassment. Not that long ago homosexuality was widely pathologized as a form of "arrested development." Three decades of psychological new-think and ideological uplift have vastly changed that picture, and now here comes Chuck & Buck, exuberantly and unmistakably dredging up a very un-p.c. stereotype.

    It turns out to be the key to the film's triumph overall, I think, in showing that every stereotype contains an element of truth (precisely what the p.c. crowd wants to deny) yet never the whole truth. In fact, Buck ends up being a lot more than the simple "case" the movie at first confronts us with. I won't say what happens, but only that, thanks to White's writing and Arteta's superb direction, the last 15 minutes of Chuck & Buck are as note-perfect, as deftly executed and imaginatively satisfying as the ending of any film I've seen in ages. When the other side of that tightrope finally looms up, it has the incredible-yet-inevitable feel of a real cinematic coup.

    Though arriving after Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and a few other shot-on-video films, Chuck & Buck strikes me as the first truly "normal" low-budget feature to demonstrate the potential of shooting with mini-digital video cameras (which go for less than $3000 and thus greatly reduce the costs of making a feature). As such, it adds to the case that digital production will be to the next decade or two what 16 mm was to independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes and John Sayles in decades past. No, the image here (shot by Chuy Chavez) doesn't look as good as 35 mm; any technically attuned viewer will spot the difference right away. But the viability of such a format, we quickly see, ultimately depends on a great story and topnotch execution. Those virtues explain how Chuck & Buck, made on a shoestring, ends up vastly superior to the $140-million Perfect Storm. For cash-strapped moviemakers, that victory is a not-to-be-missed object lesson.

    The Five Senses Directed by Jeremy Podeswa Some years back, I realize in retrospect, I gave up reading modern novels. Not contemporary fiction entirely, just novels that fit the generic tag "modern": cool, elegant exercises in style and sensibility. Yet I still often enjoy the same thing when I encounter it in movie form. Maybe that's why I gave up the books. The Five Senses, by Toronto-based filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa, is the kind of auteur film that now, at least in the English-speaking world, belongs only to Canada. It's a very handsome production, on a scale that suggests a considerable budget. Yet its appeal has little to do with obvious story elements or stars (its cast has one "name," Mary-Louise Parker). Rather, the film is about the writer-director's particular view of contemporary life.

    The story's central conceit (each of its five interlocking stories involves a character who's associated in some way with one of the five senses) is just that: a conceit, a way of organizing various heteroclite materials. The story takes place over a couple of days when a young girl is declared missing, a crisis that offsets and interlocks the lives of people who otherwise are caught up in their own little dramas. These include, to give a few examples, a cake decorator (Parker) who's awaiting the arrival of her Italian boyfriend (Marco Leonardi), and her best friend (Daniel MacIvor), a bisexual house cleaner who embarks on a project of reconnecting with all of his past lovers.

    It is a film of clean lines, elegant interiors, empty spaces and lives that teeter halfway examined and inchoate. Podeswa has a gift for lyrical visual description (his camera's never parked in a prosaic spot) as well as for creating a narrative that unfolds according to its own ethereal logic. What's refreshing about all this is that it allows your imagination to roam as freely as the filmmaker's distanced-yet-searching gaze, and doesn't impose meanings on you. Indeed, it works best as an antidote to the various degrees of crass obviousness that our media now barrages us with from all sides. Compared to the overheated rhetoric of most movies, The Five Senses is a meditative retreat in a quiet, slightly mysterious place up north.

    Reeling It's a now a ritual as dopey as most summer blockbusters, but The New York Times, among other papers, never seems to tire of it: Whenever a movie based on history comes out, some supercilious history professor is dragged onto the op-ed page to pontificate on how shameful, wrong and distorted the whole thing all is. Oliver Stone has spent more than a decade being slimed by such boobs, who, apparently thinking they're demonstrating their authority regarding the facts, only prove their complete ignorance of movies. David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis is the latest to inadvertently pose the question: Is there any breed stupider than college history professors? Street sweepers, maybe? Bank presidents?

    Fischer's target of course is The Patriot, which has the unmitigated gall to violate leftist orthodoxy by offering a positive view of the American Revolution. Naturally, the prof doesn't admit any ideological motive of his own. Rather, he thunders in the name of the god that surely counts least to any moviegoer or artist: picayune factual accuracy. In his July 1 Times op-ed piece, Fischer proclaims, "The Patriot is to history as Godzilla was to biology. Egregious errors appear in every scene." Egregious, mind you! And what are these terrible violations of truth that should keep any right-minded citizen away from The Patriot? Fischer's first example is that the film shows British dragoons wearing red when they actually wore green. The second is that ink is shown as brown, though ink of the time was black that aged brown.

    This kind of objection will strike any bright 12-year-old as transparently moronic. Which it is. Apparently everyone but college professors knows that movies are about drama, dream and movement, and that creative choices like the above are made so that the filmmaker doesn't have to stop for a history lecture ("Did you know that some British troops wore green?") every two minutes.

    The Patriot is one of the few movies in American history to deal with the Revolution and certainly its underlying conflicts: the struggle between collective ideals and individual self-interest and conscience, for example. Prof. Fischer doesn't even approach the film on the level of ideas, though. Why should he, when the terrible, unconscionable inaccuracy of brown ink is at stake?

    It's hard to believe that anyone is really this dumb. One suspects there's an element of intellectual dishonesty at work here too.