Whether you find the new picture by Miguel Arteta (“Star Maps”)
creepily funny or simply creepy will pretty much depend on
whether you can get past the rather unsettling premise of doing
a comedy about a homoerotic stalker and appreciate the message
of tolerance, forgiveness and gradual maturation that the
script by star Mike White ultimately delivers. “Chuck & Buck”
is unquestionably a weird little movie, which (like Todd
Solondz’s 1998 “Happiness” or David O. Russell’s 1994 “Spanking
the Monkey”) takes what most will consider an unsavory idea
and infuses it with a surprising degree of poignancy and humor;
in its leisurely, meandering way, it transforms characters
who might originally seem simplistic and somewhat unpleasant
into individuals of considerable complexity and even charm,
managing along the way to instill some real suspense and
occasional bursts of hilarity into its rambling, episodic
structure. But for many the modest success of this daring
venture will never be able to overcome their resistance to the
fundamental arc of the plot.

The picture first introduces us to Buck (White), a 27-year
old naif, locked in the past, who reunites with his best
childhood buddy Charles (Chris Weitz) when the latter arrives,
fiance in tow, for the funeral of Buck’s long-ill mother. The
two apparently haven’t seen one another for more than a decade,
but Buck, trapped by memories of their youthful friendship,
is clearly obsessed with his erstwhile pal, and, in his
fumbling, inarticulate fashion, makes a pass at him; he then
follows the astonished Chuck back to L.A., where he schemes to
resurrect their old camaraderie, making himself a pest (and
perhaps a danger) in the process. Buck even inveigles his way
into a neighborhood theatre troupe, which eventually mounts
his quickly-penned play “Hank and Frank,” which he hopes might
persuade Chuck to resume their closeness. The ploy eventually
leads to the recognition that Buck, Chuck and the latter’s
girlfriend are all more complicated people than had seemed
to be the case; it also introduces the emotionally stunted
Buck into new friendships, notably with an almost maternal
theatre manager who also becomes his play’s director (Lupe
Ontiveros) but also with the dimwitted actor (Paul Weitz,
Chris’ brother) whom the “playwright” selects to star in his
opus because of his likeness to Chuck.

Although the picture might initially appear little more than a
low-budget variant of the “friend-from-hell” scenario which
has been frequently reworked in films (most recently–or
egregiously, perhaps–in the Jim Carrey stinker of 1996, “The
Cable Guy”), its approach is much subtler, both more chilling
and more gentle. It has an eerie, surrealistic quality that’s
reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s “Neighbors” (the fine novel,
not the dreadful John Avildsen filmization of 1981 with John
Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) rather than Carrey’s raucous fiasco,
and in its deliberate, unforced way it manages to treat
virtually all its characters not with condescension or
contempt, but with a certain understanding and affection in
spite of their failings. The cast helps greatly to achieve
this effect. White makes Buck a credible innocent without
transforming him into a mere simpleton, but doesn’t lose the
hint of potential danger that gives him an edge. Chris Weitz
has perhaps the more difficult role as Chuck, whom he invests
with a stillness that masks his hidden complications. His
brother Paul is amusingly brusque as the eager but hopeless
actor, and Ontiveros brings a pleasant mixture of warmth and
gruffness to the sometimes-astonished Beverly.

One should finally praise the low-keyed but estimable work
of director Artela, who easily eclipses the energetic but
ragged “Star Maps” with his work here. Taking his time and
letting the characters breathe while creating a slightly
off-kilter atmosphere in which they can develop naturally,
Artela shows considerable finesse.

If, therefore, you won’t simply be put off by a premise which
might strike you as simply too disagreeable to watch, you
should find “Buck & Chuck” a rich little film which turns out
to be, like its protagonist, odd, at times unsettling, and
occasionally irritating, but also quite fascinating and even
strangely endearing.