7 out of 10
Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner
Naomi Watts as Linda
Elisabeth Moss as Phyllis Wepner
Ron Perlman as Al Braverman
Jim Gaffigan as John Stoehr
Michael Rapaport as John Wepner
Morgan Spector as Sylvester Stallone
Pooch Hall as Muhammad Ali
Sadie Sink as Kimberley Wepner
Directed by Philippe Falardeau
To quote the Coen Bros., ‘once there was a man … once there was a man.’ This particular man’s name was Chuck, Chuck Wepner (Schreiber) and he wasn’t notable for much beyond his ability to take a punch and penchant for bleeding easily in the boxing ring. Also he once went almost 15 straight rounds with Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, a feat many better and better known boxers never managed. If this were a movie — and the perceived relationship between Chuck’s life and the movies is a big part of Chuck — the leading man would take his moral victory and head home to his family, triumphant. Chuck, the movie, about Chuck, the man, wants us to remember that the movies are mostly full of sh*t and forgetting that is a good way to ruin your life.
In 1975, Chuck Wepner was a semi-successful heavyweight on the New Jersey Club Circuit who spent a lot of his time getting beat by better boxers. He wasn’t going anywhere big, but that didn’t matter, he had a decent job outside of boxing as a liquor salesman, a decent home and a decent family and he didn’t need much else.
But that all changes when a call from Don King sets Wepner with a title shot he never thought he’d get and chance to prove he’s as good as anyone else by going the distance with the champ as he confesses to his long-suffering wife (Moss). If that sounds like the plot of the movie Rocky, it did to the real-life Wepner as well who has spent the rest of his life insisting he was the basis of the character.
Unfortunately for Chuck and just about everyone in his orbit, the Rocky connection is literally the only thing interesting about him. That doesn’t have to be so, except Chuck believes it more than anyone else. He’s defined life, knowingly or not, around how it would work as a movie, right down to his obsessive viewing of the Rod Sterling boxing classic Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Parading around New Jersey as ‘The Real Rocky’ Chuck takes all the advantage of the relative fame he can, and soon finds his wife and daughter leaving him behind. In anyone else’s hands, Chuck’s turn to drugs and booze and women would be full of mania and melodrama, an excuse to yell and scream and smash things as life didn’t turn out quite as planned. In the script from Jeff Feuerzeig (who produced a well-received documentary about Wepner) and Jerry Stahl — and most especially in Schreiber’s hands — Chuck is entirely a character of pathos. He’s a man who wants to make people happy but who lives so fully in the moment he doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions or the quality of advice of his friends (Gaffigan) who are sponging whatever they can off his momentary fame.
Schreiber brings all of his best physical acting work to Chuck, not just his imposing stature in the ring but also the way he collapses around himself when life doesn’t work out. The closest he gets to a fit of pique is banging on his steering wheel after Sylvester Stallone (Spector) writes a part for him in Rocky II and he blows the audition. (In real life, Wepner and Stallone’s relationship was considerably more complicated).
An everyman who stays an everyman even when touched by fame, Schreiber is by far the most interesting thing about Chuck. The rest of his supporting cast flits in and out of his life with little definition or reason to care about them, particularly Naomi Watts as a friendly bartender who is supposed to be Chuck’s salvation but since she doesn’t take part in much of Chuck’s extended party life we never see enough of her to get a sense of her as a person.
Only Moss and Perlman as Chuck’s aggressively upbeat manager and trainer manage to really stick in the mind. That’s not a knock on the cast, but an unavoidable side effect of Chuck’s inability to ascend its own limitations.
Outside of Chuck himself, every other part of Chuck has been recycled from other, better sports or cost-of-fame films and melded together. He wants to do right by his family but the lure of fame is too strong, pretty soon his doing drugs steadily and unable to partake in everyday life, yadda yadda yadda, he boxes a bear for money. It’s all been done before, right down to the faux-16mm look director Philippe Falardeau uses to evoke not so much the era but the films of the era and Chuck doesn’t have much new to say about any of it except perhaps it’s better to ignore the call to fame and just focus on the joys of an ordinary life.
It’s certainly not a novel statement, though in the current media culture maybe one worth repeating, but it does not land with the strength the filmmakers may have wanted. Chuck, the film, is a lot like Chuck, the man, decently charming and mostly harmless.