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Cinderella Man (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 June 2005
Cinderella Man? More like Seabiscuit Man. This big-scale biopic is all too clearly intended to repeat the response—critical and financial—to “Seabiscuit” of a couple of years ago. It’s about a crowd-pleasing sport, it takes place during the 1930s, and the title character is depicted as the great come-from-behind champion who lifts the spirit of America during the Great Depression. The radio ads for “Cinderella Man” promote this as not just a good movie, but one of the best movies of all time. That’s not just shameless, it’s outrageous.

Hell, it’s not even Ron Howard’s best movie as director. (For me, that remains “Apollo 13.”) It’s a good enough Hollywood biopic, well-produced with attractive stars and a sure-fire story. But it’s also manipulative and often corny with idealized central characters and one demonized supporting character. And in some ways it’s false to history.

Yes, James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) did suddenly rise almost literally from the gutters to heavyweight boxing champion of the world (really, of the U.S., since he backed away from taking on Max Schmeling). He was a nice Irish guy from New Jersey, a family man, handsome (though he looked more like Dennis Morgan than Russell Crowe), and his life after retiring from the ring was free of any taint of scandal or shame. He was an honor to his profession.

But he didn’t embody the great soul of America during the Depression as shown here, his example did not give the downhearted a great boost. He never became as famous (then) as his most notorious opponent, Max Baer (very well played here by Craig Bierko), and certainly not as famous, or beloved, as the man who took the belt away from him, Joe Louis (not depicted). Braddock had his period of fame, then honorably retired, and was soon largely forgotten.

However, a couple of years ago Universal released “Seabiscuit,” which really was about one of the great heroes of the Depression. In that case, the central character was a horse, of course, of course, not a man, but the horse was surrounded by colorful, complicated characters. Here, Universal probably presumes the returns may even be larger, because the central character is a nice family man. But Braddock himself is awesomely uncomplicated, while everyone around him seems to be stitched together out of shards and fragments of older boxing movies and stories of the Great Depression.

Russell Crowe is very good at portraying complicated men with dark but heroic souls; he’s not asked to do anything like that here. What he does is perfectly fine, but it’s a movie star performance, it’s not an acting challenge. When he’s on screen, you rarely want to look anywhere else, but since the first time you see Braddock, you get all you are ever going to be given regarding his personality and motivations, having this bland guy as the central figure wears more than a little thin.
The movie isn’t helped by Renee Zellweger, either. As time passes, more and more she seems less and less, a bundle of repeated gestures, cute frowny facial expressions and pursed lips. Her own personality remains winning, which is the saving grace here, as the script by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman doesn’t give her—or Crowe—many dimensions to play.

Don’t these two ever get angry? Didn’t they ever raise their voices? Didn’t they have any conflicts they had to resolve? Not according to this movie; even though they do suffer from time to time, it’s always nobly with upthrust chins and buckets of hope. Both of them manage the period accents very well, with Crowe dropping in soft “goils” and other New Joisey woids.

Paul Giamatti is as charming and impish as usual, but like the two leads, he isn’t given anything very complicated to do. As with the Braddocks, he’s exactly the same throughout the movie; nobody in this film ever seems to learn anything important, or to change in a believable way. It’s like having race horses turn a merry-go-round.

In 1928, Jim Braddock is a promising boxer, although he has a tendency to break and re-break his right hand and doesn’t quite know what to do with his left. After a successful bout, he and his wife Mae (Zellweger) have a genteel celebration in their back yard, ringed with Japanese lanterns, in their suburban North Benton, N.J. Craftsman-style home. But by 1933, a few boxing setbacks and the stock market crash of 1929 have wiped out the Braddocks’ savings, and they’re living in a cramped basement apartment. They’re having a tough time keeping up with all their debts, but Jim does take the time to righteously lead his eldest son to the butcher’s to return a pilfered salami.

Jim gets work only occasionally; the cattle-call daily hiring grind at the New Jersey docks is getting him down, as he’s all too rarely chosen. He meets fellow stevedore Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), a former lawyer who’s beginning to be fed up with the vast gulf between those that still have and the working stiffs in the cold streets. Wilson is a fictional character but based on a lot of real-life people of the time, those who tried to organize unions, those who staged protests (and who were often called Commies). Mike participates in a riot at the Hooverville in Central Park, although I don’t think that Hooverville was still in place by 1935, as shown here. I suppose he’s in the movie to show what might have befallen Braddock.

When the apartment’s electricity is turned off for non-payment and Mae has to farm the three children out to relatives, Jim is reduced to going on the dole and even visits a club (or something) for boxing promoters to literally beg for money for his family’s sake. He’d been decommissioned by the Boxing Commission, so he can’t even fight.

His long-time manager Joe Gould (Giamatti, channeling Lee Tracy) turns up in his spiffy roadster to offer Jim a one-time bout at, of all places, Madison Square Garden, the pinnacle arena of the time for boxing. He’s been granted a one-time waiver. It’s supposed to be a simple opening match for the evening’s big bout between champ Max Baer and Primo Carnera. No one, not even Jim, expects him to win—but he does.

And again he’s a contender, working his way up the ranks heading for a showdown with big, hard-punching Max Baer, who’s killed two men in the ring already. This frightens Mae, understandably enough. Can Jim prevail? Is the movie called “Loser”?

Craig Bierko plays Max Baer as a party animal, sarcastic and cutting in remarks directed at Jim Braddock—and at his wife. Baer is portrayed as just this side of a monster, a mean son of a bitch who wants to win at any price, by any means necessary. In reality, Baer and Braddock were friendly enough; Baer was mentored by Jack Dempsey, who knew them both and there are photos of the three horsing around in night clubs. Old champ Dempsey was irritated by Max’s fun-loving attitude toward his boxing career. Max’s grandfather was Jewish, and he embraced that fact, even to the point of wearing trunks emblazoned with a Star of David (as seen here). His most famous, even awesome, match is not even mentioned: his big bout with German Max Schmeling; the German Max knocked the American Max completely out of the ring—but Baer came back and won the fight in a decision. (Both of these Maxes would be great subjects for biopics themselves. Baer had a Hollywood career of sorts, including an affair with Jean Harlow; he starred in a couple of films, and he and younger brother Buddy duked it out in Abbott & Costello’s “Africa Screams.” The outgoing, likeable Max died of a heart attack at age 50. His son starred in “The Beverly Hillbillies” as Jethro and is now a producer. Unlike his reputation at the time, Schmeling was nothing like a Nazi, and refused to allow Hitler to use him for propaganda. He beat Joe Louis once, then lost to the Brown Bomber—and they remained friends the rest of Joe’s life, World War II notwithstanding; Schmeling, who died this year at 99, often helped Louis financially in later years, and was a pallbearer at his funeral. The information you can find on the Internet.)

As a piece of Hollywood craftsmanship, “Cinderella Man” shines. The wide-screen cinematography by Salvatore Totino is rich and detailed, and the production design by Wynn Thomas convincingly depicts the period without the fussiness of approach that sometimes mars period films. Thomas Newman’s score is generally quite good, though at times it becomes so symphonic that it sounds almost satirical.

As a director, Howard tells stories very well—but he can’t seem to shake the old-Hollywood shackles that prevent him from rising from the ranks of the very good to the more rarefied atmosphere at the top. He’s quite literally a child of Hollywood, growing up before our eyes in “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days.” His roots are strong—brother Clint and father Rance make their customary appearances here. But he forever embraces clichés as truths; he can’t manage to leave behind the standard Hollywood tropes and ideas. Here, many familiar boxing movie elements reassert themselves; that some of them really happened is not a sufficient justification for not looking for different ways to relate familiar events.

Yes, Max Baer did fight two opponents who died, one the same night, the other during a follow-up match with someone else. But instead of glorying in the reputation this brought, Baer resigned from the ring after the first death, and had to be induced to return—after which he adopted a more joking approach to almost all his bouts, including the one with Braddock. Did Howard and staff feel it necessary to depict Baer as a grinning thug?

In real life, just before The Big Fight, did Mae Braddock beg Jim to give up the ring for his family’s sake, like in many other boxing movies? During his fights, was Jim spurred on by thinking of his family in poverty—or was he perhaps more stimulated by the basic thought of winning? Did Joe Gould talk about punches this much? Here, he never once mentions any other kind of boxing strategy, not wind, not footwork, not psychological intimidation. Just punches. Is this because the other elements of the sport are unknown to most movie audiences?

“Cinderella Man” is a good, solid Hollywood movie, but it’s undercut throughout by everyone taking the easiest, obvious route. It could and should have been much more than it is.

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