The Buck Stops Here

Chuck & Buck is a psychosexual playhouse. What Lies Beneath is a scary ghost story with Michelle Pfeiffer.

Chuck & Buck might be the most perversely agreeable stalker picture ever made. This stalker, Buck (Mike White), is clearly bonkers, but he’s easier to root for than the object of his obsession, Charlie, a k a Chuck (Chris Weitz), a smug music executive with a house in the Hollywood Hills and a trophy fiancee. As 11-year-olds, Chuck and Buck were evidently the gayest of chums. The conceit of this black comedy is that Charlie has grown up and become a show-biz player (and a heterosexual) while Buck has continued to live in his old room and suck lollipops. He now dreams of nothing but those long afternoons in the backyard having, in the words of the picture’s blithe pop anthem, “Ooodly ooodly ooodly ooodly ooodly ooodly, fun fun fun—yeah.”

Conventional melodramas would make Buck either an angel—a phantom reminder of lost innocence and integrity—or a devil—a demon out of Charlie’s unconscious bent on destroying his newfound stability. But in Chuck & Buck, this ghost of childhood past carries no moral freight whatsoever. Buck is what he is: a roiling mass of adolescent longings. In one squirmy scene after another, Buck shows up unannounced at Charlie’s home and at his company, Trimorph, to marvel at his grown-up life, entreat him to hang out, and make frankly lewd propositions. It means nothing to him that he can’t connect with Chuck’s fiancee (Beth Colt) and is mocked for his clothing by Chuck’s high-powered friends: After all, they don’t know the Chuck he knows, the real Chuck. What Buck just can’t fathom is why his old pal won’t come out and fool around.

Buck is played by the movie’s writer, Mike White, and what a fitting name that is! Buck’s skin is albinolike, nearly translucent, and so are his emotions: When he turns his watery eyes on Charlie, his blubbery underlip trembles. Wandering across the street from Trimorph to a children’s theater, he sucks on a Tootsie Pop and asks the box office manager, Beverly (the bracingly direct Lupe Ontiveros), what she does. In Chuck & Buck’s most ingenious twist, he hires her to direct a workshop of an original play: Hank & Frank, the story of two childhood buddies and the witch who gives one of them poisoned cookies that take away his free will. Beverly fixes Buck with worried eyes and tells him his ideas about women are disturbing, but she’s not about to turn down $25 an hour. And there is something compelling about Buck’s fairy-tale scenario. It’s the work of a delusional, misogynistic paranoiac. But it’s pure. 

This psychosexual playhouse of a movie is just a sketch—it’s thin and repetitive, and it doesn’t really mushroom emotionally. But audiences respond to its giddy, mock-childlike subversiveness and its riotously blunt dialogue. The streamlined filmmaking suits these elemental characters. The director, Miguel Arteta (Star Maps, 1997), has shot the picture on digital video. The image is soft in the long shots, but you don’t need many of those for a script this pared-down. There is a tantalizing suggestion that Chuck and Buck, both incomplete, are two sides of the same person: a successful adult who has repressed his inner child to the point where it takes on a life of its own. What keeps the movie small is that we don’t see the residue of that child—the Chuck in Charlie. We don’t know if deep down he resents his smart and pretty but slightly boring fiancee. We don’t know if his homosexuality was a phase or if it’s where his heart is. His face remains a yuppie mask.

A hilarious mask, though. What’s fun about Chris Weitz’s Charlie is that he looks like Tom Cruise, and Weitz gives Charlie some of Cruise’s oily, too-practiced diffidence—the kind that signals he’s so powerful he can confine himself to “aw shucks” grins and boyishly noncommittal shrugs. Our knowledge that Weitz himself is a powerful filmmaker (he co-directed, with his brother, last year’s smash American Pie) doesn’t hurt. Thanks to its casting, Chuck & Buck can pass as a Hollywood allegory, with Buck the resentful writer forced to mine his childhood pain in isolation while Chuck the producer-director develops a glib public persona. There’s another casting coup: As the studly but terrible actor whom Buck chooses to play Chuck in Hank & Frank, the filmmakers turned to Weitz’s brother, Paul, who looks like a beefier, less refined version of Chris. The cleft chin in Chris becomes in Paul a veritable butt crack.

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott makes the best case imaginable for Chuck & Buck merely by contrasting it with Disney’s The Kid, which is another of those fraudulent movies in which a child helps adults to rediscover the integrity they lost when they grew up and became (inevitably) cynical and corrupt. Not to take anything away from kids—I was one myself—but their “innocence” often manifests itself in pulling wings off insects and brutalizing one another so badly that they spend the rest of their lives working out their traumas on hapless bystanders. Read Lord of the Flies. Or better yet, see Chuck & Buck, in which the inner child is neither innocent nor corrupt but simply raw, needy, and constitutionally unequipped to accept the word “no.”

Some movies’ pleasures are so slender that they can be ruined not just by revealing their endings but by revealing their premises. That’s the case with What Lies Beneath. I went in a state of ignorance and more or less stayed that way until the climax. It helped. The picture is a Gothic ghost story, and it’s slow and shapeless and packed with red herrings. But that shapelessness helps to keep you off guard, and when the jolts come, they’re good ones. I even screamed once, and I know all the tricks.

What can I tell you without spoiling the fun? There’s this wife, Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), of a work-obsessed researcher, Norman (Harrison Ford), whose daughter has gone off to college and who has been left alone in an immaculate Vermont lake house. As if on cue, doors open by themselves. Bathtubs fill up. Stereos turn on. Faces float by in the lake. The dog starts acting weird, barking at shadows, refusing to enter certain rooms. The next-door-neighbor’s distraught wife disappears and the husband is seen lugging heavy bags in the middle of a storm. Is that wife the ghost—or is there another dead person in the vicinity? Is someone alive trying to drive Claire mad? Claire isn’t too clear. She’d been in a serious car crash the year before. Did she “forget” something really big? Did she die actually like Bruce Willis in that film last summer without realizing it? Has she been haunting herself? Time to break out the Ouija board. We know she’s getting closer when she shows up at an antique store called “The Sleeping Dog.”

To avoid tipping his hand, director Robert Zemeckis keeps the surfaces clean, placid, and emotionally neutral. Is Harrison Ford hiding something or just giving an ill-at-ease performance? Do he and Pfeiffer seem like strangers because they’re glamorous movie stars trying to breathe life into a hackneyed haunted-house script, or is there something dark and unresolved at the heart of this marriage? Pfeiffer is so supernaturally gorgeous that she might be a ghost: She almost never looks at home in the real world.

I’ll tell you this: There’s a great, Hitchcockian suspense sequence in a bathtub. And I’ll give you a hint about the picture’s climax—

Hold on, there’s a shutter banging. I’ll be right ba …