“There’s more to you than meets the eye, Chuck. Not much more, but just enough.” This highly qualified compliment is directed on screen at the bedraggled hero of “The Bleeder,” but it could just as easily apply to the film itself. Hitting many familiar, grainy biopic beats in its portrait of little-remembered heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, said to be the real-life inspiration for “Rocky,” Philippe Falardeau’s film actually picks up when it retires from the ring. As it ditches the expected underdog arc for a compassionate anatomy of an all-purpose loser, “The Bleeder” overcomes its slightly put-on 1970s Joisey grit to become quite affecting — thanks in no small part to the self-punishing commitment of leading man and producer Liev Schreiber. Mild theatrical potential won’t change Wepner’s status as a mere footnote to Rocky Balboa’s fictitious triumph, but the pic should punch its weight in ancillary.
Since scoring a foreign-language Oscar nod for his touching classroom drama “Monsieur Lazhar,” Quebecois helmer Falardeau has proven himself adept at bringing unexpected emotional texture to seemingly trite English-lingo material. Just as 2014’s “The Good Lie” wasn’t entirely the mawkish heartwarmer its marketing promised, so “The Bleeder’s” modesty distinguishes itself from a recent spate of commercial boxing dramas. Though it neither seeks nor reaches the visceral red-meat heights of last year’s “Rocky” spinoff “Creed” — in which Schreiber, coincidentally enough, had a voice-only role — its weary, sincere humanity is worth a dozen “Southpaws.” “Sometimes life really is like a movie, and sometimes it’s better,” Wepner drawls in the film’s over-present “GoodFellas”-style voiceover. Much of “The Bleeder” falls pleasantly in between.
Bulked out (though not unfeasibly ripped, in a pleasing bit of period detail) and sporting a handlebar mustache that makes him look a little like Burt Reynolds washed on the wrong cycle, Schreiber cannily plays Wepner from the outset as a heavy who’s not quite formidable enough to be a thug. After opening with one of those irritatingly ubiquitous flash-forwards to a low point in the protagonist’s arc — namely, fighting a trained bear for money in a bar — the film bouncily fills us in on Wepner’s upbringing and early adulthood in working-class Bayonne, New Jersey. Married to no-nonsense postal worker Phyll (a superb Elisabeth Moss), he holds a day job as a liquor salesman (“I was too nice to be a debt collector”) and, true to his personality, rises through the pugilistic ranks more on the strength of his bullish resilience than any killer instinct.
Nicknamed “the Bleeder” in boxing circles, to his consternation, for his body’s abnormal release of the red stuff during fights, Wepner’s shot at unlikely legend status comes in 1975, when promoter Don King picks him to challenge Muhammad Ali in a world title fight. (The film makes a witty point of Wepner having been chosen to fit King’s plan of a racially charged showdown: “You’re the white guy!” his manager, played with oily glee by Ron Perlman, exclaims without irony.) After going nearly 15 rounds with The Greatest, Wepner is inevitably defeated, though not without some pride at having made it so far.
That’s as far as Sylvester Stallone took his story in “Rocky,” and where many a boxing drama would bow out. But “The Bleeder’s” writers — including Jeff Feuerzeig, Jerry Stahl, Michael Cristofer and Schreiber himself — are far from done, documenting Wepner’s fall from this admittedly moderate height in unflattering detail. Indeed, the film is most thoughtful, and sometimes even painful, as a study of the pitfalls (and pitiful rewards) of local celebrity. A warm homecoming reception in Bayonne, coupled with Stallone’s (payment-free) appropriation of his life story, leads Wepner to believe himself a big shot, and so he delusionally succumbs to all the wine, women and disco-fueled, marriage-ending cocaine binges that accompanied big shooting in the late Seventies.
Taking a few leaves from the Scorsese playbook in this manic, tragic latter stretch, Falardeau doesn’t offer much stylistic innovation in his portrayal of this unsavory era, but it’s evocative enough. He and gifted cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc (“War Witch,” “Enemy”) often distress the image to convincingly evoke archival material — yet subtly subvert period nostalgia with their mustard-and-peanut-butter palette, which sits just on the bilious side of sepia throughout. Costume designer Vicki Farrell, meanwhile, is to be commended for what looks like a restrained thrift-store raid: Certain key items (notably Wepner’s gaudy plaid overcoat) are recycled heavily across the film’s decade-long timeline, to increasingly poignant effect.
But it’s the actors wearing those perfectly unlovely duds that give “The Bleeder’s” more rote passages life and distinction. Turning 180 degrees from the crisp containment of his best-in-show turn in “Spotlight,” a reeling, rattling Schreiber makes for a boorish but all-too-vulnerable antihero, rarely going for easy sympathy but laying all the man’s weaknesses bare. He’s given all the fight he deserves, meanwhile, by Moss, elevating a potentially thankless neglected-spouse role with patiently brewing fury. She’s handed one stunning monologue in a bar, dressing down the latest target of her husband’s roving eye with a reminder that she’s one in a line of many: “You don’t even have to be pretty — and you’re not.” Slightly out of place as the feisty bartender who gives Wepner a second chance at his downest and outest, a spirited Naomi Watts nonetheless gives proceedings her best Amy Adams in “The Fighter.”
David O’ Russell’s 2010 film is another in the long line of hard-luck pugilist portraits that “The Bleeder” amiably recalls without quite matching. (Another is 1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” repeatedly referenced here via Schreiber’s most amusing Anthony Quinn impression.) Stallone even puts in an appearance here, albeit in the form of reasonable young facsimile Morgan Spector, to stoke Wepner’s unfulfilled dreams of stardom. One of the most bittersweet scenes here finds Wepner watching the 1976 Academy Awards telecast alone, cheering the triumph of the film he mistakenly believes he has a stake in, only to find that no one else cares. “The Bleeder” probably won’t have the real-life Wepner celebrating on Oscar night, but at least he now has a respectable movie portrait to call his own.