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So far this summer, we’ve seen bland big-budget movies about tiresomely conventional heroes (M:I-2, Gladiator, The Patriot) and bland big-budget movies about edgily unconventional heroes (Shaft, X-Men). This week, Trixie and Chuck & Buck demonstrate a depressing corollary: Quirky, small-budget pictures about outlandish antiheroes can be just as pointless.
In theory, Trixie seems promising. It was written and directed by Alan Rudolph— who usually does well when working with both his own scripts and strong actresses—and it stars Emily Watson, whose devotion to the characters she plays is unquestionable. This time, she’s gum-chomping Trixie Zurbo, an inexperienced rent-a-cop who aspires to be—as she puts it in her consistently mangled English—a “private defective.” Naive about life and love but especially clueless about language, Trixie distorts everyday sayings in a manner that Rudolph clearly hopes will be seen as philosophical: “I don’t have to believe what I think” is one of her fractured semiotic gems.
While working at a small-time resort casino, Trixie befriends smarmy, heavy-drinking nightclub singer Kirk Stans (Nathan Lane), low-rent lothario Dex Lang (Dermot Mulroney), and fledgling floozy Ruby Pearli (Brittany Murphy). To impress her, Dex takes Trixie on the boat owned by his sleazy boss, Red Rafferty (Will Patton), where she meets corrupt state Sen. Drummond Avery (Nick Nolte) and veteran floozy Dawn Sloane (Lesley Ann Warren). Soon, Dawn is dead under mysterious circumstances, and Trixie is on the case—even though she doesn’t know what the case is. (In homage to Watergate, there’s something about a missing tape.)
As usual with Rudolph, one of the central mysteries is romance itself, although the director’s Love at Large connected loving and sleuthing more explicitly a decade ago. Dex dispels Trixie’s sexual innocence, but the movie’s essential matchup is not X-kids Trixie and Dex but crypto-literates Trixie and Avery. Rudolph has constructed the senator’s dialogue from found blather: the less-than-edifying utterances of Newt Gingrich and other contemporary civic philosophers. In the film’s most effective sequences, Trixie parries Avery’s practiced political doubletalk with her own impromptu malapropisms.
These exchanges are very clever, but Trixie alone quickly becomes tiresome. In a theatrical farce, this sort of axiom injurer would be a supporting character rather than someone who, like Trixie, is in virtually every scene. The film Rudolph calls a “screwball noir” soon burns out its namesake’s schtick, and, Avery’s dialogue aside, supplies few compensations for its irksome lead character. The movie does offer a cute running gag about the various characters’ real names and one flashy sequence of mirror-image setups, but the plot’s machinations are wheezy. On one level, you have to admire Rudolph for devising two hours of Trixie-isms like “Do I have an ace up my hole?” and Watson for delivering them with utmost conviction. On another level, you just want to scream.
Trixie is a traditional sort of accidental hero, a bumbler whose good heart ensures her eventual success. Chuck & Buck’s protagonist is of a newer variety, a product of the Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute era: Buck’s a creep whose very creepiness is supposed to be profound. It seems not to have occurred to writer Mike White, who demonstrates his commitment to Buck by actually playing the part, that his creation might simply be tedious.
When the story opens, Buck’s childhood friend Chuck (Chris Weitz) is long gone. Buck remains in the northern California suburb where the two were buddies, but Chuck, who now prefers to be called Charlie, has moved to L.A. and acquired a music-biz job, an expensive house, and a fiancee, Carlyn (Beth Colt). At 27, Buck still dresses and thinks like a 12-year-old, maintaining his Star Wars memorabilia and sucking on lollipops.
Lured back to the old neighborhood for the funeral of Buck’s mother, Charlie finds that his former pal is still obsessed with their friendship. Charlie quickly flees back to Hollywood, but Buck follows. He stalks his old playmate at work and at home, attempting to ally with Carlyn while desperately trying to supplant her. For Buck has one passion that won’t fit in his toy box: He wants to re-enact the exploratory sexual games that he and Charlie played as adolescents. When he can’t, he stages a play called Hank and Frank, in which slow-witted bad actor Sam (Paul Weitz) plays a fictionalization of Charlie. (This development allows for the movie’s most engaging performance: Lupe Ontiveros as the blunt-spoken box-office manager Buck hires to direct his drama.)
As Solondz’s Happiness demonstrated, the combination of children and sex is a guaranteed attention-getter, and despite his adult form, Buck is definitely a child. The point is not that he’s an outcast because he’s gay, which he may or may not be. Buck’s fixation on Charlie is a symptom of his arrested development, not his sexuality. (There are elements of family autobiography to White’s tale: He did grow up in northern California, the son of a fundamentalist Christian minister who subsequently came out and began a second life as a gay activist.)
The squeamish aspects of adolescent sexual awakening may be important to White and his collaborators because their real job is glamorizing teen sex: White has worked as a producer and writer for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, and Chris and Paul Weitz produced and directed American Pie. “I was tired of writing about people who are too wonderful to exist,” White has said. His remedy? Write about someone too marginal to matter.
White’s performance is more interesting than his script, which suggests a cross between Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Tea and Sympathy. Neither gets much help from director Miguel Arteta, who debuted with the promising if overwrought Star Maps. Arteta shot the film in digital video, but unlike the Dogma-tists who have reveled in the medium’s limitations, he simply accepts them. Chuck and Buck just looks crummy. Its images are even scruffier than its ideas. CP