The Bleeder Review [TIFF 2016]
The Bayonne Bleeder – Jersey’s own Chuck Wepner – might be a Garden State boxing legend, yet Philippe Falardeau’s The Bleeder lacks his face-splitting determination. This is a boxing dramedy less worried about the actual matches, and more focused on telling the zany story of Wepner’s egotistical squanderings (from booze to hard drugs to loose women). Falardeau’s coke-fueled vision is never a dull one, it’s just a rags-to-pretend-riches story that struggles to differentiate itself from a billion other biopics of the same self-destructive nature. Wepner slugs, swills and sins his way to iconic mediocrity, leaving a trail of white, powdery dust in his wake – but the party-dramatics feel all-too familiar, because we’ve seen them time and time again.
Liev Schreiber stars as Chuck Wepner, Bayonne, New Jersey’s own thick-headed boxer celebrity. After a string of victories, Wepner finds himself slated to face-off against a young Muhammed Ali, coming off the rising star’s surprise knockout against George Foreman. Wepner loses out in the end, after almost making it 15 rounds with the future legend – but his local fans don’t care.
Audiences were enamored enough by his TKO with only 18 seconds left in the entire bout, so much so that Wepner’s still received as a champion upon his return home. Even without a belt, Wepner finds himself hopping from club to club, soaking in the attention while his frustrated wife (Phyliss, played by Elisabeth Moss) remains at home with their daughter. If Chuck keeps his wild ways up, he’ll surely lose his family. Too bad it feels so good to be the king…
Schreiber certainly has fun playing Wepner, whose personality allows him to rip off his best Jersey drawl and wear flashy getups that scream nightclub cheesiness. A certain sleazeball charm draws us into Wepner’s early debauchery, but his cheating ways and predictably selfish demeanor eventually wears thin. This might be a true story, but such a hard-fast focus on blackouts and massive parties doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy, except for Wepner’s actual run-in with Sylvester Stallone (so fantastically portrayed by Morgan Spector). For those who don’t know, Stallone’s “Rocky” character was based off Wepner’s actual career (specifically the Ali fight), which leads to a lot of feather-rustling and false pride at the hands of a film he played absolutely zero part of.
Yet, even with such lavish party scenes, there’s a certain weakness as the (artificial) highs keep coming. Writers Jerry Stahl and Jeff Feuerzeig stick with the constant theme of Wepner being a real lost soul, motivated solely by his own ego. Elizabeth Moss’ character luckily doesn’t deal with her flirtatious husband’s bullshit, but even she sticks around the nogoodnik too long. Either way, when Moss splits, it just allows Schreiber to waste even more of his life on dirty dealings – which only detracts from The Bleeder.
It’s a limbo act where Wepner sees how low he can go, but the stakes feel disenchantingly low. No matter what Wepner does, he walks away a smooth-talking hero, where Falardeau has more fun exploiting the negatives in Wepner’s life without any stinging commentary. Boxing scenes are few and far between (more of Pooch Hall as Muhammed Ali would have been A-OK), but there’s plenty of wrestling naked girls while hopped up on anti-depressants.
We get it – he’s a fake playboy.
It’s a shame, because Falardeau does have genuine fun telling Wepner’s wild tale (as does Schreiber acting it). Like I said, the Stallone material is absolutely dynamite, while Wepner’s early bar stories harken back to braggadocios pub heroes who romanticize over the good old days. Film quality distortion makes us feel like we’re watching a 70s moving picture, and scenic work creates a swanky Studio 54 vibe complete with the more mature after-party scene.
Yet, the shenanigans can only last so long before repetition sinks in, and even worse, Naomi Watts never really gets a chance to prove her casting inclusion, merely playing a bartender role who becomes much more important in the film’s final minutes. Jim Gaffigan shows up as Wepner’s longtime chum and Ron Perlman is almost unrecognizable as fight promoter Al Braverman, but for what? So a quick match comes and goes, making way for another damning night out?
The Bleeder will entertain in some circles, and remain a distant boxing dramedy with pillow-like hands to others. As far as true stories go, this one is a bit on the wacky side – something director Philippe Falardeau has trouble balancing. Ego is a dangerous controller, one that we have to keep in check if we’re to stay responsible. Charlie Wepner never believed in this kind of focus, as he let the temptations of nightly hubris cloud the judgement that got him a beautiful wife and stunning daughter. Every problem can be fixed by booze and broads in Wepner’s mind, and it’s that same mentality that’ll burn him. Sounds like a shocker, right? Well, now you understand where my “repetition” knock is coming from…
The Bleeder is a surface-value, party-first boxing dramedy that pulls its punches and goes too far into "charismatic sleazeball" territories.