Philippe Falardeau, director,
Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer & Liev Schreiber, script
Starring: Liev Schreiber (Chuck Wepner), Elisabeth Moss (Phyllis, Chuck’s second wife), Naomi Watts (Linda, Chuck’s third wife), Ron Perlman (Al Braverman, Chuck’s manager), Jim Gaffigan (John Stoer), Michael Rapaport (John Wepner), Pooch Hall (Muhammed Ali), Morgan Spector (Sylvester Stallone)
Unless you’re a boxing fan or a Zoomer blessed with a memory for Seventies pop culture, Chuck Wepner’s name won’t ring any bells. The heavyweight from Bayonne, New Jersey did make headlines, though, when in 1975, he fought Muhammed Ali for the boxing championship of the world. The story of a no-name club fighter who actually knocked down the champ once and nearly finished their 15 round title fight, is the inspiration for the rags-to-riches—and back to rags—film Chuck.
Liev Schreiber is excellent as Chuck Wepner, an old-school American macho male, who never met a bottle, drug or dame he didn’t like. When we first meet him, Chuck is trying to persuade Phyllis (the amazing Elisabeth Moss), his second wife, to stick with him as his boxing career is unraveling. Unfortunately for her, she eventually comes back to help him train for his once in a lifetime opportunity to fight Ali. Chuck—a brawling train wreck of a guy—also relies on his manager and best buddy as they all try to get him ready for his big night. (Fun fact: Ali was guaranteed 1.5 million dollars for the fight while Wepner signed for $100,000—his biggest pay day up to that time.)
Though it’s set in the boxing world and the Ali scenes are central to the film, Chuck is about a guy who embraced the American dream and loved every kitsch element of the cheesy Seventies, from big ugly cars to disco music to the fashion crimes that people wore back then. (I swear that I never wore huge pimp hats, paisley shirts or turquoise flair pants, nor did anyone else I knew!)
Though there are campy and satirical elements in Chuck, the filmmakers show real heart. They like the guy and it’s hard not to do so. His story may have influenced Sly Stallone to come up with Rocky and he certainly did try to cast Wepner in one of the sequels. Sadly, Wepner failed the audition.
The good news for Chuck Wepner is that he did finally meet the love of his life—wife number three, Linda. As played by Schreiber’s real life partner Naomi Watts, she’s the perfect funny-yet-tough broad to handle the almost heavyweight champ. Together, they run liquor franchises now in New Jersey (of course.)
Chuck is directed by Quebecois filmmaker Philippe Falardeau. The auteur of one of Canada’s best films this decade, Monsieur Lazhar, Falardeau joins the growing list of Quebecois filmmakers, which includes Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Valleé and Xavier Dolan, who are making it in Hollywood. Like Chuck Wepner, their rise may be unexpected but they seem completely capable of continued success in la-la Land. More power to them—and to Chuck, which is a feisty, funny film worth seeing, especially if you’re a guy.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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