Everybody knows Rocky. Many might know that Rocky is based on a true story about a New Jersey boxer who stood up and faced Muhammad Ali for fifteen punishing rounds. Director Phillipe Falardeau’s new film Chuck seeks to bring us the story of the “real Rocky,” told with a charming irreverence that makes you like a guy who really isn’t that likable, and root for an underdog that you know is going to lose.
Liev Schreiber is Chuck Wepner, a New Jersey liquor salesman and heavyweight boxer known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” whose main claim to fame is the time that he went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. The film traces the rise and fall of Wepner as he becomes an unlikely contender to fight Ali, and then finds that the fame it brings him only fuels his most self-destructive, self-hating tendencies. While Chuck largely plays like a standard redemption narrative (does anyone ever become successful and actually wind up happy and healthy about it?), it nonetheless avoids many clichés by embracing the good humor of its central character, a man who’s just happy to be recognized.
The film cannily avoids just being a “true story” version of Rocky, and instead shifts its focus to the seedier reality behind the Hollywood façade. Chuck is a good boxer, but he’s chosen to face Ali because he’s one of the few white heavyweight contenders. Rather than finding this insulting, Chuck is elated – he gets to fight Muhammad Ali! He gets to train like a professional boxer! That in itself is enough to make him happy, and his happiness is infectious – he wants to give a good performance in the ring, and it doesn’t seem to matter to him whether he has the ghost of a chance at winning. After the Ali fight, he basks in the glory of being someone who actually exceeded expectations, becoming a hometown hero. But Chuck has to continue to rewrite his own narrative, telling ever more elaborate stories about his career, and exaggerating his importance to the degree that people begin to call him on it.
Things get weirder when Stallone makes Rocky. The film turns Chuck into even more of a hero when he lays claim to being the “real Rocky Balboa,” and pushes him even deeper into a seedier world of easy sex and easy drugs. This is where the film begins hewing more closely to the redemption arc and loses much of its impact. As the focus shifts to “saving” Chuck from himself, it ceases to be interesting and feels more like a light comedic version of Raging Bull.
Supposedly Chuck has to learn how to be a real human being rather than attempting to play an icon’s part, but the film fails to exploit this element to its greatest potential. Chuck’s education becomes secondary to hitting every redemption narrative mark, and the loss of his identity in the wake of “becoming” Rocky is almost incidental to the story. The Chuck of the beginning of the film is pretty much the same as the Chuck at the end of the film. He’s still easy-going, still fundamentally decent, and still just a little self-involved. Perhaps the film meant to imply that Chuck’s flaws are what make him Chuck, but the lack of a fully developed character arc makes the narrative feel hollow.
The performances do make the film, and occasionally even draw it away from the clichés it constantly flirts with. Schreiber is outstanding here, very likable and believable as an easy-going boxer. The punishment that Chuck takes as a fighter isn’t quite as visceral as many boxing films, but Chuck is more of a dramedy than serious rendering of a fighter’s rise and fall. The secondary cast is likewise impressive, including Jim Gaffigan as Chuck’s best buddy, and Ron Perlman as his manager. A weirder piece of casting comes with Naomi Watts as Linda, a bartender whom Chuck develops a flirtation with, Linda comes off as Watts cosplaying Vickie LaMotta from Raging Bull, largely because the character is introduced late and remains underdeveloped. More affecting is Elisabeth Moss as Phyllis, Chuck’s first wife who puts up with his antics with a combination of acerbic humor and eventual disdain.
Chuck is ultimately a decent film, not a major Oscar contender, but certainly not a bad film by any means. It could have made much more of its underlying themes, and so comes across as somewhat superficial, failing to completely integrate the interesting character permutations into a cohesive whole. The film seems to want to be more than a standard redemption narrative, but is too entrenched in the classic Hollywood structure to really break free of its own clichés.
Chuck is currently showing at Tribeca Film Festival.