Chuck vs. The Greatest

A moment of boxing fame for a forgotten contender

Opens Friday, June 2. Starring Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts and Michael Rapaport. Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

The eponymous “Chuck” is one Charles Wepner, a heavyweight boxer from Bayonne, N.J., whose 15 minutes of national fame derived mostly from his having more or less survived 14-plus rounds of punishment in a preposterously one-sided championship bout with Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Philippe Falardeau’s feature film about Wepner revolves around that moment of fame. It’s a kind of a biopic, outlining the unlikely rise and ungainly fall from that one much-publicized part of his life. But, lacking a fully realized life story, Chuck comes across as more character study than biopic.

Liev Schreiber’s doggedly brusque performance in the lead role consistently lifts the film beyond the sketchiness of its script. An attractive and energetic supporting cast (Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Jason Jones, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, etc.) helps with that as well, but only up to a point.

The film’s Chuck Wepner is an amiable pug, a heroically energetic knucklehead, an impulsive and muscle-bound “good-time Charley” who is fun-loving to a fault, an indomitable brawler who is too actively good-natured to be written off as merely punch-drunk or masochistic. In more prosaic terms, he is either a self-promoting liquor salesman who moonlights as a low-rent professional boxer, or a local pugilistic legend (“the Bayonne Bleeder”) whose intermittent day job involves arranging liquor deliveries to an assortment of Jersey taverns. And while he is also a married man and the doting father of a small daughter, he still exhibits the wandering eye and easy enthusiasm for nightlife that would seem better suited to someone younger and more unattached.

It’s no surprise when Wepner’s marriage begins to crumble, but it is somewhat surprising (albeit in a not entirely good way) that the women he is most drawn to stay connected to him as long as they do. His wife, Phyllis (Moss), repeatedly catches him out in very dramatic terms and yet reconciles with him several times. And Linda (Watts), the foxy-smart bartender to whom he turns when things go bad at home, seems very well aware of his failings, yet her wariness never gets to the point of a full breakup with him but instead seems to morph into a growing commitment.

Falardeau and his four screenwriters steer clear of oversimplifying explanations with these key characterizations, but some of their looming emotional paradoxes make me wish the film hadn’t left us so much at the mercy of the star players’ intelligence and charm. That approach, however, is nicely suited to some of the smaller roles—a craggy boxing manager (Perlman), Chuck’s ominously quiet younger brother (Rapaport), the boxer’s star-struck sidekick/best friend (Gaffigan), etc.

Those vivid performances and Falardeau’s brisk direction ensure that Chuck is energetic and engaging throughout. But it’s most memorable when it’s letting Chuck be “Chuck”—a raucously discordant bundle of macho rambunctiousness, a half-cracked icon of American masculinity in a mid-20th century vintage.