HPPUB MOVIE REVIEW of Chuck&Buck, But I’m a Cheerleader, Nurse Betty, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, The Pledge, The Closet, Swimfan


Title:  Chuck&Buck (also called “Chuck and Buck”)

Release Date:  2002

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 96 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company:   Artisan Entertainment/Blow Up Productions

Director; Writer: Miguel Arteta

Producer: Matthew Greenfield



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Movie review of Chuck and Buck (Chuck&Buck) (2000)

Starring Mike White, Chris Weitz, Lupe Ontiveros, Beth Colt, directed by Miguel Arteta

Artisan Entertainment (and Blow Up Productions); MPAA – “R”;  8.0/10


Boy, I could be sarcastic or mean and compare “Chuck” to the Chuckie doll of Child’s Play.  No, in fact, it’s Chuck (Chris Weitz) who apparently “outgrew” his boyhood attachments, started a great career in Tinseltown, found a girl friend and is ready to validate his manhood by getting married.  So maybe Chuckie equates to Buck (Mike White), the loser, with the Oedipal complex, who has stayed home and cared for his ailing mother for five years, and then inherits enough to live on.  Buck, in fact, is the stereotyped “queer” of Freudian mythology.  His articulation is sincerely dumb, as when he says “your face is fatter,” or later when he alliterates on first names (I wont’ rhyme the title of the film, but it’s pretty transparent), practically in front of Chuck’s girl friend.     It’s worse than that; his behavior seems so simpletonish that he comes across as retarded, when actually he is quite calculating, in his own way. “It gets what it wants.”


But I know the situation, desperately longing for that “straight friend” who has outgrown me, and moved away out of my life, to his own family, and left me as a singleton.  Well, I couldn’t see behaving the way Buck does, blatantly stalking his friend and making outright sexual proposals. (Right off the bat, he “moves” to LA to follow his friend around, and is asked to explain what he is “doing” in LA; yet Chuck tries to be “nice about it.”)  Buck could go to jail, or at least get hand-slapped with a cease-and-desist order from a court. Instead, the worst he gets is several rebuffs from Chuck and advice from the girl friend to get therapy.  (For more on stalking, see the review of De Becker’s book on this site).


But Buck somehow turns himself around. Most interesting is that hand-writes a children’s play (non pun), transcribed as almost a Harry Potter fantasy actually based on his “relationship with Chuck, and then through Chuck’s girl friend, makes Chuck see it. (Hand-written: no computer skills, not even a typewriter.)  He makes a director out of a cleaning woman (Lupe Ontiveros), and she goes on to great things.  We wind up hoping  that Buck redeems his own identity by becoming a success himself. But it doesn’t work out that well for everybody. And, to make it, Buck will have to get interested in something other than his own brush-offs and his own feelings.  I found myself wondering if it is that easy to get a novice play “produced,” if there are that many starving actors in the guilds who will want to be in one.  (Of course, given the autobiographical nature of the play, Buck would have to watch it if he really made it.  Maybe an invasion-of-privacy suit.)


I’m not sure I buy the denouement for Chuck.  He gets married, all right, Wagner style, but he’ll have to deal with who he is for the rest of his life.


The film was apparently shot with a digital camcorder, a technique for low-cost independent film-making, but the “pixel” photography sometimes looks coarse and muted on a large screen. 


I’ve seen the “childhood best friend” concept treated with more depth than it is here, but maybe that’ll be another movie some day.


Don’t confuse this with the silly 2007 comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.”


There is another film, Swinfan (2002, 20th Cent. Fox, directed by John Polson), that is a heterosexual analogue. Here Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) goes after high school swimmer Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford), who spurns her. It turns into another exercise in stalking (get it, women staking men), like Fatal Attraction or Play Misty for Me. But then the film turns into a silly exercise of automated plot skeleton generation, as Madison frames Ben in a sequence of improbable complications. I guess studio script-reading and grading is just too automated.  Cronin starts looking more manly as his chest and forearm hair visibly grow back after he is kicked off the swimming team for his unrequited “girl friend’s” sins rather than his own. There is a scene early on where he teachers her to swim in a series of distant shots that seem so cold and unerotic that the MPAA people didn’t even notice that he “makes it” with her once at the end of the scene. They never do show the pre-competition body shave-downs for peaking, but Cronin never is that competitive. Watch your natatorium. 






A “complementary” film to this, dealing with the appropriateness of gender-related “behavior,” is But I’m a Cheerleader, from Lions Gate Films (2000),  directed by Jamie Babbit (rated “R”). Lions Gate, a British studio (I thought) loves to bring us films about gayish Americana.  Here we have a pseudo-satire which comes across as a spoof on Lions Gate’s masterpiece, Dogma (1999).


The appropriateness of the concept puzzles me.  First, I don’t see what being a cheerleader has to do with lesbianism, or with falling into the hands of the “ex-gay” movement.  The lead character, Megan, played by Natasha Lyonne, says that cheerleading is about simple slogans that make people feel good.  Okay, she maintains that her “behavior” just comports with cheerleaderism, not lesbianism.  Really? So it is.  The pudgy African-American henchman recruiting patients for this “True Directions” Betty-Ford-style treatment facility (not exactly Twelve-Step, more for “homosexuals anonymous”) wears a bloated sweatshirt proclaiming, “Straight is Great”—which reminds me of an anti-gay group that surfaced in Houston in 1984, calling itself “The Straight Slate,” an outgrowth of that horrific “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS.” 


Which brings me to the next point.  Why does the film focus on the “lesbian’s” point of view, when the anti-gay social pressure really starts with the idea that men must conform to the expectations that they not become sissies? (There are “sissy” male characters in this comedy, but they sit on the sidelines a bit.)  Maybe it gets back to Randy Shilts’s idea of “Lesbian vampires of Bavaria, as in his Conduct Unbecoming.


Finally, why should the whole ex-gay thing be treated in comedy, when the real thing is so compelling.  It really does happen.  It happened to me in the early 60’s—being thrown out of William and Mary for “admitting to the Dean” that I thought I was gay, being told by my parents that I might never see college again (but I did), and being conjured into psychiatric treatment at NIH, ultimately about “change.”  Even today, teenagers (particularly from religious families) are “committed” to facilities dedicated to changing them; there are advocacy groups in San Francisco that deal with them.  A serious film on this, done right, seems appropriate.  And even more, is where this topic eventually leads.


The script does hit on a few important points. Most telling is that others can often tell what one is “thinking” just from the context around one’s behavior.  In one scene, a male character is caught “staring” at the proprietor’s hunky son—and sexually attractive people (men and women) often do correctly assume that they have been hit on or stared at, something that gets more homely, aging people into trouble.  And there are lines about “admitting: ‘I am a homosexual,’” and about doing what is expected of women (vacuum cleaning and scrubbing) and men (sports).  Indeed, the goal for the “patients” or “students” is to “graduate” from True Directions, sort of like graduating from military boot camp, and insinuating that one hasn’t become a “grownup” until one “gives up” the narcissism of homosexuality and “learns” to use his sexual equipment and psyche the way society demands in order to fit in as an adult. (If this is true, what does it say about heterosexuality?)  The penultimate sex simulation scene is paradoxical: the hunk is covered with a body suit to negate any external appendages of masculinity, almost to imply that one act of sexual intercourse renders a man a eunuch (that’s what happens to some squids, or they die).  The final (except for PFLA, below) “graduation” scene is a simple email joke, when Megan waves her cheerleading flowers.  


Perhaps most important is when the female characters get ready to escape into recidivism, one of them says, “all of this that you can change, it’s all bullshit.  You are what you are.”  Interesting, that the ex-gay threads have been among the most active on the Independent Gay Forum discussion boards.  At the end, there is a tribute to PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) when one of the dowry-controlling parents finally sees the truth.     


And the title of the gay bar, in rainbow-colored letters, is great. I can’t repeat it here: it’s Harmful to Minors.


Now, after all, this is a very small film.






To return to the “stalking” idea, I have to mention the black comedy Nurse Betty (2000, R), from USA Films (Gramercy and Polygram pictures, generally noted for art movies). It is directed by Neil La Bute, and stars a subservient, self-effacing Renee Zellweger as Betty and Greg Kinnear (who had played the gay man in As Good As It Gets (1998) across from Jack Nicholson) as the soap-opera doctor “hero.” While her husband is scalped literally on camera by a “hit man” (Morgan Freeman) (actually by two hit men) the Kansas waitress lives in a fantasy, “virtual reality” world, almost as it were in the TV set.  Children used to believe that what was inside TV was real, but cats are not fooled!   So Betty drives to L.A. to “stalk” her hero and actually gets a part in the soap opera, when she chokes.  She has about as much maturity as Buck, and finds a creative outlet for her problems. But here we have the Chuck and Buck “follow me around” idea in a fundamentally heterosexual version. It’s not quite Play Misty for Me. 


WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS (Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brlantes)  


This film (2000, Zeitgeist pictures, should be NC-17 as a legitimate adult film) is the first-ever rendition of R. W. Fassbinder’s play by the same name, directed by Francois Ozon.  The story apparently takes place in Germany but most of the script is in rather idiomatic French (subtitles), with a few soliloquies in German (no titles) by the troubled 20-year-old Franz. It stars Bernard Giraudeau, Malik Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier, Anna Thompson.


On the surface, this play portrays the (to some people, disgusting and others, enlightening—one remembers Greece and Sparta, after all) situation where a middle-aged 50-year old businessman (Leopold) takes in and romances a gorgeous 20-year old “boy” (Franz). Two female characters (one of them apparently transsexual) enter the stage later and complicate things into a love polygon with a tragic ending, which I’ll not give away.


The situation is interesting to me, of course, because in the American gay community there is some sense that older men should keep to themselves, and that there is some moral ukase to remain sexually interested in people your own age, to keep things fair and give the next generation it’s fair chance. Hence the controversy about under-30 talk groups and so on in some cities. There is also the belief among younger gay men that older men have some kind of economic clout and control over them. Such is the case here, where Franz apparently becomes largely a houseboy with a sugar daddy (well, he has a low-paying job).  At it turns out that it is Franz who is locked into a certain inflexibility about romance (as well as a preference for the “bottom”), not the “dirty” older man.


In fact, younger gay men, at least those talented or well-educated, today often are much more competent at many things than some of their older counterparts.  They may be favored by employers and may enjoy the advantage of having grown up in a more tolerant society that, at the same time, encourages them to become little adults (with the email accounts, cell phones, cars, and social schedules) earlier than those of my generation. And they may not fully grasp the sacrifices of the generations that went before. Such is the need for social studies. So a movie with a more intact younger character would have been more interesting.


The movie looks like a videotaped play, and seems rather confining, just like the characters. The music score is interesting.  The opening scene, where the men become intimate while fully clothed  by first discussing “girl friends” and then games like chess and a kind of backgammon while the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (G Major) plays in the background, resonates for me—only to break down at the clumsy treatment of further intimacies (the trench-coat business does not work for me).  Later, Franz is dancing like a pop star to the choral strains in the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem.  (Britten’s could have been effective, as in Beau Travail). When the movie ventures into heterosexuality (seeming rather alien in context), it becomes very sexually explicit, with full female nudity where everything is shown (“eyes wide open”), and hence I presume this gets an NC-17, which is OK because there should be respect for movies that are intended just for adults.


There’s a great line about Franz’s chain-smoking and nicotine fits. “Cigarettes are bad for the skin.”
Indeed they are, for peripheral circulation, if you don’t want to go bald in the legs.


THE PLEDGE   (2001)


I’ll put this big budget AOL-Warner Brothers/Franchise Pictures “morality play, art film, and thriller” into perspectice. Sean Penn’s direction, sometimes reminiscent of Snow Falling on Cedars as well as The Gift, seems a bit leaden in its handling ot Jack Nicholson’s ex-police-detective character himself.  And well, without the ability to care for a family of his own, it seems that the cop, even during the twilight of his career, has indeed become a dangerous, creepy, dirty old man, sinking into the most destructive pedophilia, albeit heterosexual, of almost Dahmer proportions.  Penn, after all, has starred in films about capital punishment.


 Why didn’t WB play its wonderful musical Casablanca trademark during the opening credits of this one?


THE CLOSET (Le Placard) (2001)  Miramaz-Zoe, directed by Francis Verber, is a farce (almost in opera buffet style) from France about the modern workplace (one thinks of Nine to Five and Clockwatchers).  The setup: a boring man (Francois Pignon, played by Daniel Auteuil), whose wife has left him and whose rather ebullient teenage son (the cigarette smoking scene is depressing) shuns him, and who is about to be selectively downsized out of a humdrum accounting job—invents (with the help of an aging homosexual neighbor with a wonderful kitten as a “child,” acting as social cement) a workplace rumor that is he is gay, to take advantage of the supposed “special  rights” (I make fun of the religious right here) that he’ll have to protect him. Ironically, the company is a condom factory, and the corporate offices in Paris look like a bluish Moulin Rouge. The ensuing situation comedy plays out a bit like an R-rated I Love Lucy, poking fun of our “don’t ask don’t tell” values. There is one serious workplace legal issue: the company wants to use its employees to advertise itself to the public, both in wide-screen company photos and later at a gay pride parade. Technically, the film is spectacular: great, almost 3-D like wide-screen shots of Paris streets as well as great sets. Also with Gerard Depardieu (as a homophobic HR manager who winds up in a mental hospital for his own reverse reparative therapy) and Thierry Lhermitte.      .         




Related reviews: Latter Days, etc, Mysterious Skin, Bad Education, etc.


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