' ' Cinema Romantico: Chuck

Monday, May 22, 2017


Though “Chuck” is based on a real life story it begins with a quote from Rocky Balboa, which might seem contradictory, except, of course, that “Chuck” is Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), the Bayonne Bleeder, so-called because he hailed from Bayonne, New Jersey, concluding every other sentence with a “ya know”, and because in the ring his face bled constantly and profusely, and who earned infamy for going fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975. Sylvester Stallone was so taken with Wepner’s story that he modeled “Rocky” on it, which we see in “Chuck” even if director Philippe Falardeau would simultaneously have us believe that Wepner modeled his life on Mountain McClintock, played by Anthony Quinn, the hero of 1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” One scene finds Chuck, lying in bed with his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss), reciting the latter’s most memorable monologue word-for-word, maybe “Chuck’s” most moving moment and for sure the most emblematic. Because Schreiber cannily plays Wepner as the star of his own movie, not so much delusional as a palooka who just doesn’t know any better and thinks every time he wakes up in the morning it’s another clap on the clapperboard, Act I, Scene II, take three.

Though Chuck’s rise and fall pivoted around his fight with Ali, where Wepner improbably knocked The Greatest to the canvas before suffering a final round technical knockout, this showdown, of sorts, turns up fairly early in the proceedings, highlighted, or not, as it were, by a strangely un-charismatic Ali (Pooch Hall), which is not so much a disappointment as merely a reminder of how the real former Cassius Clay was unlike absolutely anyone else. And Wepner v Ali is relayed in a less momentous, more casual manner akin to the entire film, most of which is underscored by continual voiceovers, all of which Schreiber gives an irreverent ring, like he knows he has no real wisdom to impart. These monologues exist for expository purposes, sure, but that’s okay, because it’s like Chuck is just telling us his story from the corner barstool, editing as he goes along, which is why significant moments are not necessarily afforded their proper weight and other bits of not-as-imperative business are lingered over more than you might expect. Late in the film, in fact, Chuck gets busted for selling cocaine, a whole side story that just sort of appears, and Chuck’s reaction is nothing more than a “hey, whatever” shrug.

Indeed, for a story with big highs and many lows, the movie remains on a fairly even keel, rounded out by this character who can’t quite seem to grasp his circumstances and commit to change, garrulously blundering down the same blind alleys again and again. Those alleys are ones we have been down in movies before, to be sure, with a lot of “Chuck”, its soundtrack heavy on 70s hits and shots of bumps of coke turning up aplenty, feeling like low-rent Scorsese, which, in a way, is kind of what Chuck is. When he’s invited to read for a part in “Rocky 2” with Sylvester Stallone himself, played by Morgan Spector in a performance that deftly differentiates between Sly and Rocky Balboa, Chuck brings along his pal John (Jim Gaffigan) and two nameless female hangers-on. It is a moment not so much traditionally comical as evocative of how they are all completely out of their depth.

Meanwhile, of course, there is Phyllis, the thankless part of The Thankless Wife, holding down the home front while the husband keeps screwing up. She is played heroically by Moss, evincing equal parts exasperation with this lout at her side and determination to make it work for the sake of their child. Phyllis’s story, of course, would be just as much worth telling, and yet in moments like John coming to the post office where she works to plead on behalf of Chuck there is also the distinct sensation that Phyllis would be fine with a life of privacy. And while Chuck’s estranged brother (Michael Rapaport, showing absolutely no vanity by way of lots of paunch) is a formulaic character on paper he is still convincingly conveyed in conversations between the two men that are all wonderful Jersey shorthand where words that seem like filler speak volumes.

And then there is Linda (Naomi Watts). She tends bar at a dive Chuck frequents because there he can feel like The Champ he never officially was. If so many others enable Chuck, she does not, fending off his advances and calling him out for his sins. She’s a stock character too, of course, even if she’s real and really still with Chuck as the closing credits explain, the supportive woman with no inner life because whatever life she leads must be set aside to help put the principal male’s life in order. Watts does not transcend this banal characterization, per se, but the chemistry she shares with Schreiber is so astonishingly visceral that it, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s Johnny and June-ish, emitting an air of Meant to Be, which, in a movie that blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s fantasy might just yield “Chuck’s” grandest fantasy of all – a land of make believe where Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts stayed together forever.

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