Why “Chuck and Buck” Is the Most Underrated Movie About Male Friendship

Long before "The White Lotus," Mike White proved that every film about friendship must also be a romance

April 23, 2024 6:54 am
Chuck and Buck
Is "Chuck and Buck" the most revealing movie about male friendship?
Danica Killelea

During the month of April, we’re publishing a series of interviews, essays, advice columns and reported features about the male friendship crisis in the U.S., a particularly troubling slice of the country’s larger loneliness epidemic. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, so we’re breaking it down from all angles in The Male Friendship Equation.

The hand-drawn album art for the self-titled debut LP from Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang depicts frontwoman Gwendolyn Sanford flanked by the members of her band, including a banjo-playing pig, a monkey dressed like late-period Elvis, some smiley-faced vegetables, a frizzy-haired human man on the drums, and a butterfly with wings made out of rainbows. The bright palette and clean outlines evoke a coloring book, and announce the all-ages squeaky-cleanliness of such toe-tappers as “Wee Wee Beastie,” “Selfish Shellfish” and “Beddie Bye.” Parents with Vietnam-flashback memories of Raffi tapes may flinch at the whiff of insipid ad-nauseam cheeriness, but Amazon user J. Roberts raves that “kids love it, and it didn’t make [me] want [to] pull my own hair out!” Or as the “Bio” section from the group’s official web site puts it, “Gwendolyn’s success lies in writing songs from a child’s perspective but with the subtle wisdom of an adult.”

The project’s genesis began a few years earlier with breakout single “Freedom of the Heart,” the chipper chorus of which goes “ooodily-ooodily-ooodily-ooodily-ooodily-ooodily, fun, fun fun!” atop coffeehouse-country guitar twanging. The song plays several times over the course of 2000’s Chuck and Buck — the resultant popularity from its memorable placement in the film inspired Sanford to further pursue children’s music — first during the opening credits, shortly after Buck’s chain-smoking mother has coughed herself to death. As the camera lingers on the petrified face of her unmoving corpse, Sanford’s innocent, girlish vocals creep in to form an unsettling ironic counterpoint. A viewer might read a detached cruelty into the moment, an invitation from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White (who also portrays Buck in a performance that Jeff Bridges once declared the best of its decade) to have a mirthless chuckle at the extreme morbidity. But the eerie close-ups of well-worn toys adorning Buck’s room, their too-wide eyes not quite pointing in the right directions, suggest a closer link between the juvenile and the disturbing. 

For White, awkward tangles of psychological dysfunction make up an integral building block of childhood, the monsters forever lurking under the bed of those unable to grow up. During that fragile formative period, friendship presents a particularly fraught obstacle course for school-aged boys, caught between companionate love and the heteronormative fear of being perceived — mistakenly, or worse, correctly — as a big homo. The long-estranged buddies at the bruised heart of Chuck and Buck map two forking paths outward from a primal scene both thrilling and possibly traumatic, one through denial and the other through doomed obsession. Searching for a cause behind the current male friendship recession, one would do well to start with this needling portrait of the panic driving men to sublimate or outright reject intimacy. Fellas, is it gay to have feelings for another guy?

Buck presents a textbook case of arrested development, his maturation halted somewhere in his preteen years, presumably around the time he and boyhood bestie Chuck (future Academy Award nominee and The Twilight Saga: New Moon director Chris Weitz) started sexually experimenting with one another. In the time since their exciting, frightening, confusing games of “Chuck ’n’ Buck Suck ’n’ Fuck,” Chuck has aged into yuppiedom as a junior music exec with an assistant played by a young Maya Rudolph and a fiancée soon to complete his picture of nuclear-unit normalcy. Meanwhile, Buck hasn’t grown at all, White’s dark-ringed eyes and slightly slack mouth giving him the soft, unformed, unsure face of the odd one out at recess. While attending a soirée at Chuck’s home, Buck marvels at how “old-person-y” everything looks, dismayed to find that the one person he thought he could relate to has left his dark never-never-land.

The unwelcome Buck insinuates himself in Chuck’s life upon relocating to Los Angeles, where he hopes to produce a play that nakedly fictionalizes his persisting attraction and vilifies Chuck’s well-meaning wife as a witch driving them apart. The brutal lack of self-awareness spills off of the stage as Buck turns stalker, repeatedly turning up at Chuck’s workplace and going so far as to play voyeur by his bedroom as he makes love to his wife. Something’s clearly off about Buck, and while the film condones the occasional laugh at his expense — his deranged BFF collages made as totems of his delusion give the film its meanest-spirited stroke — he’s initially posed as an object of pity, not mockery. Beverly (stalwart character actress Lupe Ontiveros), the no-nonsense house manager Buck taps to direct his play, tellingly instructs the actor cast as Buck’s stand-in not to play the role “like a little retarded kid.” He’s merely stunted, his abnormalities limited to the perversion of childhood pathologies, a discomfiting current reiterated in the mini-DV cinematography with the ultra-lo-fi texture of a grim home movie later submitted into evidence.

The closest thing Buck has to a voice of reason even as she cashes his heedlessly cut checks, Beverly leans on the fourth wall in informing him that what he wrote as a fantasy is closer to an unwitting “homoerotic, misogynistic love story” in practice. White created the character in tribute to his mother, the longtime executive director of a small SoCal theater much like the one in his film, though his father’s legacy hangs even heavier over the knotty sexual politics. Born into a devout family, Mel White rose to the top of the evangelical heap during the age of virulent conservative intolerance from Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, all of whom turned to him as ghost-writer for their memoirs. All the while, as he revealed to his wife shortly after their marriage in 1962, he privately wrestled with intrusive homosexual urges he would attempt to dispel with a battery of crude correctives over the coming decades. Mel came out in 1984 and spent the remainder of his life publicly reconciling his faith and sexual orientation as a spokesman for gay Christians, finally liberated from his self-imposed repression. 

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The terrible toll exacted by diligent, protracted distortion of the self left a clear impression on a teenaged Mike White, who’d go on to steer Buck down a similarly disrupted route toward personal truth. Like so many small-town boys who like boys, Buck’s tastes were shaped by all-American straights, a preference that informs his insistence on casting the hunky yet terrible Sam (Paul Weitz, the ideal doppelgänger for his own brother). Through him, Buck tries to replay his stymied past courtship, until Sam rejects his attempt to initiate a sexual encounter with a knee-jerk revulsion farther down the low end of the Kinsey scale than Chuck’s nervous defensiveness. Perhaps Buck recognizes this as he goes to make one last bid for Chuck’s affections, a confrontation that does indeed segue into tentative lovemaking for the pair. “I know you,” Buck reminds him. “It was me and you.” Chuck opens himself up, but afterward, gently holds firm on his need to go home to a wife he sincerely loves. His reaction clarifies that this isn’t a case of a straight man mortified by some youthful groping, but rather a bisexual anxious that relations with a man will preclude him from having them with women. (Mike White, not insignificantly, identifies as bi.)

Secure in the knowledge that his most cherished memories aren’t a lie, a freed Buck moves on, embracing the friends and professional sense of purpose that the theater have brought him. In the ultimate gesture of closure, he gives Chuck his tacit blessing by attending his wedding, motivated to go by the meaningful eye contact they previously shared during a chance run-in at a restaurant. The shot/reverse shot between them plays out exactly like the heart-stopping ending of queer love affair par excellence Carol, and considering that the indie circles Todd Haynes runs in have some overlap with White’s, it may not even be coincidence. In any case, the link points back to the fact that every film about friendship must necessarily also be a romance, a notion cannily played for laughs by I Love You, Man. In Chuck and Buck, the joke turns sour until it gives way to a tenderer lowering of the guard. There’s nothing to be scared of, it assures. This is all just guy stuff.

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