Certain movies have the seeds of a much better movie sown through them. Usually these movies are a little bit of a mess, with a jumble of tones and scenes and characters, some working better than others. The stuff that works is so good that it makes you wish the rest of the film worked the same way.
I couldn’t help but think that while watching Chuck, a biopic of New Jersey boxer Chuck Wepner. Nicknamed the “Bayonne Bleeder”, Wepner’s main claim to fame was almost lasting fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975. His match and life story were the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a bit of trivia the Bleeder would ride for years until his pseudo-celebrity led to coke, partying, and the pains of buying into your own hype. That taste of celebrity–a sip from the gilded milkshake–undid his all-right life.
Chuck can’t put it all together. It feels like a made-for-TV feature from an age before prestige television.
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Director: Philippe Falardeau
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Chuck has an endearing center in its star Liev Schreiber, whose ease and affability keep the film watchable even when it’s sluggish or middling. I was reminded how good and versatile Schreiber can be and how underrated he is as an actor. As Chuck Wepner, he’s both pathetic and sympathetic, a legitimate hometown hero and a fame-chasing clown. I’m not sure how true to life these contradictions are to the real-life Wepner, but as a character in a film, there’s promise there. One minute he’s quoting Anthony Quinn from Requiem for a Heavyweight, the next minute he’s trying to hump anything with boobs by mentioning Rocky.
Many of Schreiber’s co-stars also elevate the material. Jim Gaffigan’s solid as Wepner’s brother, a guy who loves to be a hanger-on so long as there’s coke or women involved (and as long as he doesn’t have to pay). Schreiber’s former real-life partner Naomi Watts appears mid-film as Linda, who would eventually become Wepner’s third wife. Watts isn’t given much to do but flirt and support the pathetic palooka, but the genuine fondness she and Schreiber shared comes through on screen. Elizabeth Moss is especially good as Wepner’s second wife, Phyllis, even though she mostly just has to put up with his BS.
Despite that cast, Chuck falters because of its writing, and by extension its production. Writers often use the term “connective tissue” to describe the moments between the big scenes. In Chuck, the connective tissue feels more like biopic filler. The film is stitched together with on-and-off voiceover narration. It’s too hand-holdy and on-the-nose. The movie also rushes itself, breezing along with its flutey, wah-wah kinda-disco stock score, which cheapens the overall feel. Some of the scenes may have been written too big for the budget or without much consideration for lighting and texture. Take the opening scene in which Chuck fights a grizzly bear in the ring. That’s a godd set up, but it’s lit like a coke-fueled disco party later in the film; it may have been shot in the exact same location. It feels small, but in a “Yeah, we couldn’t quite afford all this” way rather than a seedy, “My god, what’s become of my life” way.
The parts of Chuck that work are the scenes in which the movie slows down, builds out a scene, and allows the awkward moments of these characters lives to unfold. When Wepner tries to hassle Sylvester Stallone about Rocky, there’s something there. The same goes for a bad audition or a crummy parent teacher conference. These scenes are when Chuck feel less like a movie from “biopic trope land” and more like a movie about flawed people trying to screw up a little less (or a little more). So much of the movie feels like it’s just checking off shaggy story beats rather than letting the moments come like they would but given a deliberate shape.
Oddly, Chuck might have taken more cues from the original Rocky to be a better film. Rocky is a quiet, quirky, thoughtful love story about discarded people finding hope in each other. There’s also boxing, but the connection between two misfits is so strong that it doesn’t matter if Rocky wins or loses in the end, just that he endures. In Chuck, the whole arc of someone’s rise, fall, and redemption feels like it’s missing that human core. There are scenes that have it, but like fame or pseudo-celebrity, they’re fleeting.