Nostalgic For Nostalgia? The White Boxer Biopic Eats Its Own Tail In ‘Chuck’

Near the end of Chuck, we hear a voiceover of Chuck Wepner saying “See? Sometimes life really is like a movie.”

Which is joke, because a lot of movie characters say that. But in this case it’s even more literally true, if that’s possible, because Chuck Wepner is the guy who Rocky was about, who then tried to consciously emulate Rocky, and now we’re watching a movie of that guy they made a movie about who then tried to be like a movie and ended up spawning another movie. See what I’m getting at here? Chuck is kind of like the Xzibit meme of boxing movies. Yo, dawg! We heard you like boxing movies, so we put a boxing movie in your boxing movie so you could watch a boxing movie while you watch a boxing movie!

Here’s a rough timeline: Chuck Wepner went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975 and even scored a sort-of knockdown†. Sly Stallone made a movie about it, sort of (which wasn’t entirely unlike Raging Bull, which was about another working class white guy who went the distance with a different black legend, Sugar Ray Robinson, and even scored a knockdown), which spawned six direct sequels and countless imitators. Then there was a 30 For 30 documentary about Wepner called “The Real Rocky” (directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, who has a co-writing credit on Chuck). And now we have Chuck, a strange attempt to go back and tell us the story of the same Chuck Wepner, who, as he tells us in Chuck’s opening voice over, “You don’t think you know me, but you know me.”

Oh boy, do we ever. Which raises the obvious question: Why do we need two (at least) movies about Chuck Wepner, and two (at least) about Jake LaMotta (not to mention movies about Vinny Pazienza, Mickey Ward, Eminem, etc), when we still haven’t gotten around to making that Sugar Ray Robinson movie? Moreover, what is it that’s so much more fascinating about the working class Irish or Italian boxer who has marital troubles and a difficult relationship with his brother etc etc, who’s a footnote in the larger story of a black legend, than the black legends themselves? Why do we keep making this movie?

Chuck comes tantalizingly close to actually trying to answer that question before falling back into familiar patterns. Liev Schreiber plays Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” who has all the requisite elements of the white boxing movie protagonist — blue collar accent, underworld connections (he starts as a loan collector, but he’s too nice), complicated family relationship (his estranged brother, played by Michael Rapaport), tough-gal and tacky love interests (Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts), flamboyant greaseball trainer (Ron Perlman), a fancy car (a Cadillac with a personalized license plate), a lovable schlub personality, and an eventual taste for drugs and adultery.

But Wepner also loves the movie Requiem for a Heavyweight, starring Anthony Quinn as a washed up prizefighter who tells a recruiter “Mountain Rivera was number five in the world” as he tries and fails to get a job. Wepner (who would go on to be ranked 8th when he fought Ali) loves the movie, and quotes it constantly. “It breaks your heart,” Wepner says.

Why does he seek the lifestyle he sees onscreen only to repeat its most tragic foibles? It’s that question, much more than the other details of Wepner’s life, that should make Chuck intriguing. Or at least, it’s only question we haven’t seen asked 15 times before in other movies. There’s a compelling riff on culture’s echo chamber and why we love watching noble, down-on-their-luck oafs get punched in the face and cheat on their wives so much inside Chuck that’s struggling to get out. It never quite gets out though, perhaps due to simple creative inertia. This is the one boxing movie we know how to make, dammit, and we’re going to make it, no matter how much we try not to. This means we have to suffer through sequences of Chuck finding out his brother really was proud of him all those years ago, even though he pretended not to be, and Chuck being a bad husband and father, and blah blah blah. No offense to Chuck Wepner, but we’ve already seen that movie. Obviously.

One thing Chuck does have going for it is Liev Schreiber playing Wepner, and almost singlehandedly making this a watchable movie for much of its running time. Schrieber plays Wepner as a mostly goodhearted charmer who’s sort of in love with being the big shot, who can be so self-involved that he’ll spend an entire parent teacher conference talking about himself, but maintains such old school ethics that he’d rather take a prison term than rat out a supplier. Schrieber makes Wepner more compelling than maybe he actually is, and there’s an ineffable quality to his performance that’s lacking in the script.

In fact, Chuck is beautifully cast all around, with choices both obvious and inspired, from Moss and Watts to Perlman as Wepner’s manager, Michael Rapaport as his brother, and Jim Gaffigan and Jason Jones as his partners in adultery. The acting is rarely the problem in these movies, and maybe that’s my answer right there. Maybe the reason we keep making this same movie over and over is that there’s nothing actors love more than playing charming meatheads and tacky, gum-chomping sexpots from the block. Playing our parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts, basically. It’s maybe related to the reason there are so many reality shows about crab fishermen and miners and mechanics and guys who still work with their hands. It’s nostalgia for a functional dock-working blue collar world that largely no longer exists. With Chuck, we may have crossed over into the second or third wave of this nostalgia, where we’re no longer even nostalgic for that world, we’re nostalgic for depictions of it, like Rocky. Aw, remember when I watched that?

It still works, just barely, but it’s getting a little sad. Like maybe we’re an entire society of Jake LaMottas and Terry Malloys and Mountains Rivera, drunkenly telling the rest of the bar that 20 or 30 or 50 years ago were somebody, dammit. We coulda been a contender.

†Some say it wasn’t a real knockdown despite being ruled as one because Wepner stepped on Ali’s foot. Which has always seemed like a silly distinction to me. It’s a fight. Of course that counts. You don’t wanna fall down, move your foot.