Rocky Balboa is unquestionably one of the most iconic characters in the American cinema. He is the quintessential underdog — a boxer from the wrong side of Philadelphia who carries out a legendary training regime and manages to last fifteen rounds in the ring with heavyweight Apollo Creed. Philippe Falardeau’s new film, “Chuck,” is a biopic of the boxer Chuck Wepner, who was the inspiration for Rocky. Still, while “Rocky” makes you care for “the Italian Stallion,” “Chuck” does not endear you to the “Bayonne Bleeder.” In Falardeau’s film, Wepner is portrayed as little more than an interesting piece of “Rocky” paraphernalia. Marred by structural issues, poor performances and inept screenwriting, “Chuck” leads you to wonder why Wepner is significant enough to be the subject of a biopic.
Wepner’s fifteen minutes of fame came when he fought Muhammad Ali in 1975. Although no one expected Wepner to hold out against Ali, he survived fifteen rounds in the ring. After watching the fight, Stallone wrote “Rocky,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and spawned a multimillion dollar franchise. “Chuck” documents Wepner’s life before and after the 1975 match, detailing his relationships with his family, his experiences in the ring and his struggles to confront the challenges that are associated with his newfound renown.
Although the film provides a thorough overview of Wepner’s career from the 1970s onward, there is no dramatic arc to Wepner’s story. The first time we see Wepner, he is in a boxing ring, being mauled by a bear. As he futilely tries to fend off the bear, Wepner seems like a loser, and unlike Rocky, he never becomes a winner. While Rocky’s bout with Apollo Creed was a fitting ending to “Rocky,” in “Chuck,” Wepner’s fight with Muhammad Ali is an anticlimax. After the match, Wepner becomes a drug addict and a convict. He tries to put his life back together in final minutes of the film, but he seems to have returned to the place where he started. As Wepner sinks lower and lower, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with him. While we maintain hope that Rocky can live to fight another day, Chuck seems helpless and doomed to fail.
Unfortunately, the performances exacerbate the perception that Wepner is insignificant. Wepner is supposed to be “the real Rocky,” but as Wepner, Liev Schreiber does not exude any of Rocky’s dynamic charisma. Instead, he portrays Wepner as an unremarkable blue-collar worker from New Jersey, and it seems unlikely that this average Joe inspired anything. Elizabeth Moss delivers a weak performance as Phyllis, Wepner’s first wife. Her accent, which oscillates between a New Jersey and a South Boston sound, seems caught in some transitory zone between “The Sopranos” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Throughout the film, Moss displays one emotion: anger. She is upset with Wepner for continuing to go into the ring, for drinking, and for chasing other women. The monotony of her performance only adds to the sense of stasis hanging over the whole film.
In their defense, the actors do not receive any support from the screenplay. Screenwriters Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Christofer and Liev Schreiber often prefer to narrate Chuck’s story instead of showing it. After Wepner sees “Rocky” for the first time, the screenwriters do not attempt to capture his complex emotions. Instead, Schreiber simply relates in voiceover, “I felt like a movie star.” Because the screenwriters rely on voiceovers and won’t allow us to actually see Chuck’s feelings, Schreiber’s acting is constrained. Furthermore, the dialogue is as subtle as a knockout blow to the head. At one point, Wepner and Phyllis get into an argument about his adultery. She does not try to explain how his extramarital affairs have taxed her emotionally. Instead, she says she is upset because “Mommy caught Daddy with his hands in some panties that didn’t belong to Mommy.” As they speak these egregious lines, the actors are removed from reality and the audience.
Good biopics call attention to the achievements and the misdeeds of their subjects. Ultimately, these films explain why the actions of their subjects matter today. “Chuck” fails to do this. It puts so much distance between the audience and Wepner that it seems less like a biopic and more like a special feature for a future “Rocky” DVD. “Chuck” opens with a quote from “Rocky”: “Hey, who cared about me yesterday, huh? Nobody!” Yet, after watching “Chuck,” it’s hard to find a reason to care about “the Bayonne Bleeder.”
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.