Life stories don’t get much more improbable than Chuck Wepner’s. It’s the tale of a Jersey boxer plucked from the ranks of humble contenders for a title shot against Muhammad Ali, mostly because the matchup was a great gimmick.
Sound familiar? That’s because Wepner was the inspiration for “Rocky.” And that’s the thing about “The Bayonne Bleeder” that’s just as incredible — nobody seems to remember the connection. (The guy made the cover of Sports Illustrated, for crying out loud!)
Our collective cluelessness is good news for “Chuck” star/co-writer Liev Schreiber and director Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”), helping them freshen up a plotline made thoroughly familiar by, well, “Rocky.” (The film actually gives just as much play to Wepner’s affinity for 1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” starring Anthony Quinn.)
But then, Schreiber and company also go well beyond Wepner’s fleeting 15 rounds of fame, devoting half the biopic to his personal unraveling in the fight’s aftermath. It’s compelling territory that could add more to the movie’s impact than it already does, if only it hit even harder with the ugly stuff.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why this feels like an issue. Schreiber is effectively cast as a mix of fun-loving lunk and self-sabotaging egotist, and his co-writers include Jerry Stahl (“Permanent Midnight”), presumably recruited for his own notorious experience with downward spiraling. Maybe the filmmakers lacked detachment, and were understandably inclined to strike a sympathetic tone. Maybe it’s the movie’s heavy reliance on Schreiber’s quaint, regular-palooka narration — although this certainly lends novelty to Wepner’s bout with Ali (charismatic Pooch Hall, “Ray Donovan”). Whatever the case, Wepner’s descent through a had-it-coming divorce, drugs, and prison isn’t so much harrowing as just dispiriting.
Elisabeth Moss has the right idea as Wepner’s long-suffering wife. Catching him cozied up to someone else at a diner, she lashes out by witheringly telling the woman what Life With Chuck is like, in a moment that’s terrifically squirm-inducing. Adrian Balboa she ain’t.
The film’s casting in general is a strength, however deep the resonance of what the actors are playing. Schreiber’s ex-girlfriend, Naomi Watts, is a brassy, savvy presence as Wepner’s bartender soulmate. Ron Perlman is entertainingly broad as Wepner’s crusty trainer, all “bubbalas” and affectionate face slaps. And Morgan Spector (“Boardwalk Empire”) does a convincing impression of Sylvester Stallone, whose eventual, overdue meetings with his alter ego are at once cordial and oh so awkward. That’s Schreiber’s turn to really make us cringe. He should do it more often.
Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Written by Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer, Liev Schreiber. Starring Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner. 101 minutes. R (language throughout, drug use, sexuality/nudity, some bloody images).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.