The road of the almost famous is paved with frustration, resentment, anxiety and, for a certain type of self-destructive personality, awfully bad behavior. That’s the lasting takeaway of Chuck, an otherwise pedestrian biopic of the former heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner.
A New Jersey pugilist known around his community for his “dirty” style in the ring and his loose blood vessels — his nickname was the Bayonne Bleeder — Wepner’s 15 minutes began in 1975, when he challenged Muhammed Ali for the world heavyweight title. Why did the opportunity go to Wepner? The film is honest about it: He was the only white boxer in the top 10, and promoters wanted to stoke racial conflict.
Wepner lost the fight after lasting nearly a full 15 rounds with The Greatest, an achievement that wasn’t lost on Sylvester Stallone, who quickly wrote his own screenplay about an underdog brawler who doesn’t quite make it. Wepner’s relationship to Rocky — or lack thereof, since he didn’t earn a dime from its production — lies at the heart of Chuck. Curdled under the movie’s clubby humor is the sense of a man chewed up and spat out by Hollywood and the World Boxing Association alike, a quasi-celebrity once removed. Title belts and Oscars are the carrots just out of his reach, pulled ever farther away by Wepner’s spiraling drug addiction.
To its credit, Chuck is no hagiography. Its screenwriters, Jeff Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl, refuse to glamorize their subject. A womanizer and philanderer, he mistreats his long-suffering wife Phyllis (a defiant, exceptional Elisabeth Moss) by escaping into sex-fueled cocaine binges that are almost comical in their debauchery (but maybe not; it was the ’70s, after all). When he’s called a selfish prick, which is often, we tend to agree. It helps that Wepner is played with lived-in, rugged invisibility by Liev Schreiber, an emotionally naked performance full of warts — and swollen eyes, and broken noses, and cauliflower ears.
The best scenes in Chuck resound with quiet pain and cringe-worthy discomfort: Wepner’s unannounced visit to his estranged brother’s (Michael Rapaport) house, to pitifully “celebrate” Rocky’s Best Picture win; his tardy, embarrassing, coked-up appearance at his daughter’s school for a parent-teacher meeting; and especially his audition with a magnanimous Stallone (Morgan Spector) for a role in Rocky II, a more excruciating knockout than anything he suffered in the ring. (The movie treats Stallone with unwarranted generosity; in reality, the actor refused to acknowledge Wepner’s inspiration for Rocky until Wepner’s belated legal action forced him to settle for an undisclosed amount.)
But these moments are outliers in a film that is overly convivial with its audience, and obnoxiously meta (“Sometimes life is like a movie,” Wepner underlines, in one of the film’s many lazy voiceovers), all to elevate a mostly unremarkable life better suited to a Sports Illustrated article into a hallowed redemption song. Shot with the workmanlike grammar of a basic-cable drama, Chuck rushes breathlessly from its hero’s “bottom” toward his salvation, an all too pat send-off for a movie that, when it clicks, recognizes the complicated agony of chasing elusive spotlights.
More than anything, Chuck is awash in nostalgia — not for the grittier aspects of ’70s culture and cinema, but for the chintz of disco and the fallacy of pre-Watergate innocence. It longs for a period when professional boxing occupied a more stable place in the popular consciousness, when an earnest, simple picture like Rocky could upset the headline-ripped, confrontational complexities of All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver.
Today, in an era no less politically and socially fraught, it’s hard to imagine Stallone’s old-fashioned tale of triumph in defeat eclipsing its more important contemporaries, but you never know: La La Land nearly beat Moonlight, after all. Rocky had a similar magic behind its cheese, and Chuck, alas, isn’t Rocky.
CHUCK. Director: Philippe Falardeau; Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Ron Perlman, Jim Gaffigan, Naomi Watts; Distributor: IFC; Opens: Friday at AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Movies of Lake Worth, Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton; now playing at the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale