movie film review | chris tookey

Cinderella Man

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  Cinderella Man Review
Tookey's Rating
7 /10
Average Rating
6.61 /10
Jim Braddock: Russell Crowe , Mae Braddock: Renee Zellweger
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Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman

Released: 2005
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 144

Cinderella Man is the human equivalent of last year’s superior horse-racing saga, Seabiscuit. It’s an inspiring tale of a Depression-era loser making a comeback, with the entire working-class population of America rooting for his success. And, like Seabiscuit, it’s all – or pretty nearly all – true.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Gentleman Jim Braddock (here played by Russell Crowe, pictured left) really did come back from suffering a broken right hand and then losing everything he had earned in the Wall Street Crash. He, his devoted wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), who couldn’t bear to watch him in the ring, and their three children really did live for a time in extreme poverty, unable to feed themselves or heat their home in winter, and were even forced to throw themselves upon the charity of others.

Thanks to Braddock’s almost as devoted manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, pictured right), he did get one “last” fight, which he unexpectedly won, and went on – only a year after he had been on the breadline - to compete for the Heavyweight Championship of the world against Max Baer (Craig Bierko).

I won’t tell you if Braddock won, or even survived. Suffice it to say that, even if you hate boxing, I’ll be surprised if Cinderella Man (the term for him was coined by the writer Damon Runyon) doesn’t excite you and bring a tear or two to your eye.

The film is beautifully acted by all the principals, and super-competently directed by veteran Ron Howard. So why haven’t I given it five stars? And why, more importantly, has it fared disappointingly at the box office after receiving reviews that suggested it might be up for Oscars?

The short answer is that Jim Braddock is a little too much of a gentleman. He doesn’t have a single character flaw. He’s a dedicated husband and father; he may have to live off the state for a time, but he pays everything back; he’s a good Catholic; and he’s competitive and resilient without being brutal. All in all, he is a terrific guy, and we want him to succeed.

The trouble is that we can’t fully empathise with him. He doesn’t appear three-dimensional as a character, and Russell Crowe – who is at his best when playing dangerous men with a dark side – doesn’t seem stretched by the role, except insofar as it has made him learn to box.

The audience may feel more in common with Zellweger as Braddock’s seemingly mousy but actually rather feisty wife, agonising over the dangers attached to the sport, or Giamatti as his manager, hiding his own insecurities behind a brash, cocky exterior.

Great heroes in drama have to battle their inner demons. All Braddock’s demons are outside him, in the form of greedy boxing promoters, an uncaring economic system, and a potentially murderous opponent in Baer. He’s a nice guy at the start, and an even nicer guy at the end - which is heartwarming but undramatic.

The plot also avoids the darker side of boxing – especially corruption – and takes a mellow view of the Depression. This turns out to be nobody’s fault – just an unfortunate phase in history – and Braddock’s apolitical approach is contrasted favourably with his fictitious friend Mike from the docks (Paddy Considine) who wants to unionise the labouring classes and, as a consequence, is denied anything like a happy ending.

Ron Howard and his screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth perform one major disservice, and that’s to the memory of Max Baer. He’s demonised (far from accurately) as an arrogant, womanising playboy who cheats and punches below the belt. I can see that by reducing Baer to a bloodthirsty monster the film-makers make it easier to root for Braddock, but we’d be rooting for Jim by the time he comes up against Baer anyway; and this is an unnecessarily melodramatic piece of character assassination.

Still, Cinderella Man is engrossing, and although it runs for nearly two and a half hours I was never bored. This is thanks to the rich texture of the background detail, expert sepia-stained cinematography by Salvatore Totino, and the fine, transparent performances of the three leading actors who prevent the picture from becoming too saccharine, even when ailing children are involved.

Crowe’s off-screen belligerence has helped to undermine his onscreen popularity, but on the evidence of LA Confidential, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander and now this, he’s one of the most dominant screen actors there’s ever been. He’s also completely convincing as a fighter, having slimmed down from the slight portliness he had during Master and Commander.

Renee Zellweger has a rare warmth, and Paul Giamatti a splendid range of furtive expressions (this is his third memorable performance in a row, after American Splendor and Sideways). They’re a trio of actors who would grace any movie, and they certainly raise this one above the merely adequate.

Although the film threatens at times to become a remake of Rocky in period costume, there are three tremendous scenes which transcend that accusation. One takes place after Braddock discovers that his son has stolen from the local butcher; another is when his wife has sent the children away because they can no longer be fed and sheltered at home; the third is when Braddock has to go – literally - cap in hand to his old boxing promoters. These scenes may not have any great subtlety or hidden subtext, but they do pack an emotional punch, and each one is exquisitely played.

Cinderella Man suffers as art because of its lack of moral complexity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and liked it all the more because it makes us aware of once common decencies that have been lost, perhaps irrevocably. One reason the film may not connect with modern audiences is that its hero feels shame at being “on welfare” – most people nowadays just take state support for granted, and won’t see the problem. They’re the people who won’t go to see Cinderella Man, but they’re precisely the people who should.

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