Cinderella Man

June, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Ron Howard

Starring:Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, and Paul Giamatti

Is it too soon to start calling director Ron Howard the poor man’s Frank Capra? The latter directed his first movie at age 25 and went on to produce more than 30 feature films between 1922 and 1961, including such popular standards as It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and the holiday perennial It’s A Wonderful Life.  Child star Howard, (The Andy Griffith Show, Happy Days) was at the helm of  Grand Theft Auto in 1977 at the tender age of 23; he followed that money-making debut with box offices successes like Splash and Cocoon. He’s been tapped to direct The Da Vinci Code for release sometime next year, marking his 18th stint behind the camera. At 51, he’s among the most bankable veterans in Hollywood.

In bringing the story of boxer Jim Braddock’s stunning comeback to the screen with Russell Crowe in the lead, Howard continues his preoccupation with the lives of real people that have remarkable accomplishments to their credit; handling the pressures of a hazardous return from space (Apollo 13), winning a Nobel Prize, (A Beautiful Mind) or taking the heavyweight title away from a heavily-favored champion. In this lavishly produced examination of Braddock’s return to boxing prominence, Howard transports Capra’s 1930’s populism to the 21st century, offering audiences the chance to cheer a contemporary version of Capra’s self-effacing, working class heroes. Both directors see life in simplistic terms, promote what today are described as ‘family values” and commit themselves to happy endings in the final reel. High art it ain’t -- but it’s frequently sure-fire entertainment.

Braddock was an Irish-Catholic pugilist from New Jersey with a right hand given to easy breaks, (and no power to speak of in his left) when he reached contender status in the Roaring Twenties. By the early Thirties however, he was reduced to seeking day work on New Jersey’s docks while his wife and three children tumbled from their comfortable middle class life to a hardscrabble existence in a threadbare basement tenement.  Reduced to pick-up fights because of his injuries, Braddock lost his ring accreditation and found himself on welfare, another casualty in the grinding poverty of America’s Great Depression. 

But in mid 1934, Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould, was able to get his fighter reinstated for a one-time under-card appearance at Madison Square Garden as the last minute replacement for another injured fighter. Braddock stunned his critics by winning an improbable decision over a ranked contender and thus began a rejuvenated career unequaled in the annals of sport for its sheer improbability. By taking the heavyweight title away from Max Baer in June of 1935, Braddock gained boxing immortality, along with the nickname bestowed by Damon Runyon that’s the title of Howard’s film biography.

Given the simplicity of the movie’s storyline and the lack of mystery about its outcome, “Cinderella” requires an admirable and likeable hero, which Crowe quietly provides. He may be the only major Hollywood leading man who’s as capable as an actor as he is as a star; his tabloid histrionics aside, the palpable intensity of his presence in The Insider, L.A. Confidential, A Brilliant Mind and Master & Commander demonstrate Crowe’s artistic skills while movies like Gladiator and Proof Of Life confirm his box-office status as a bankable star appealing to both sexes.

As his long-suffering wife Mae, Renee Zellweger dons the Betty Boop smile and 30’s wardrobe she employed to such surprising success in Chicago, delivering a performance even more cloying than her Oscar winning role in Cold Mountain. Much of the blame can be laid at the word processor of screenwriter Cliff Hollingsworth, who uses Mae’s character as a device to show the greater nobility of her easy-going, long suffering husband. For example, the script calls on Ms. Zellweger to send her children away to live with relatives when Braddock’s meager earnings fail to pay the gas bill, giving Crowe a two-hanky scene in which he goes -- cap in hand -- to his former boxing colleagues for a handout in order to turn the heat back on. She’s terrified he’ll be hurt and wants him to quit boxing even as his successes mount; his wounded expression and wordless response only underscore Howard’s view of Braddock’s heroic resilience. Zellweger holds the current patent on the type of girl-next-door role once the career mainstay of actresses like June Allyson and Doris Day; she’d be wise to strive for something more complex in her next outing before terminal type-casting sets in.

As Joe Gould, the smart-mouthed manager with a heart of gold and the ability to analyze ring tactics in mid-punch, Paul Giamatti, (Sideways, American Splendor) turns in another of his schlemiel-with-brains characterizations; since he’s working with dialogue intent on avoiding subtly, the actor’s innate belligerent intelligence isn’t given a chance to make his role as complex as it might well have been. Bruce McGill’s performance however, as boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston, fares better; he’s a flat-out bastard in a hard-nosed, sleazy business; as McGill plays him, the character’s icy demeanor conjures up the same take-no-prisoners menace the actor first displayed as D-Day , the automotive genius who hijacked a police cruiser and roared off into ominous oblivion at the end of Animal House

If there’s an element in Cinderella Man that rivals Crowe’s performance in quality, it comes in the superb set design and art direction which wrap the film’s action in a period authenticity worthy of an Oscar nomination. From the detailed signs on store windows to the personal contents of Braddock’s toiletries case, “Cinderella Man” the movie is perfectly tailored to its historical era. It’s reminiscent of the same obsessive attention to minute detail Martin Scorsese employed to such remarkable visual effect in The Aviator

There’s a good bit of boxing mayhem here which may put off some viewers; at 2 hours and 25 minutes, there will be those in the audience who feel that a relatively straightforward tale like this could have been presented with more economy. I was particularily restlessness when Howard detoured into a subplot involving Mike Wilson, a ruined stockbroker friend, (played by Paddy Considine) who winds up in Hooverville, the shanty town that grew up in New York’s Central Park at the height of the Depression only to be ruthlessly destroyed by New York City’s finest. Howard obviously designed this material to put some historical meat on the bones of Braddock’s story, but in this director’s hands the sequence only provides another opportunity for Howard to present Braddock as a victim of an economic system which unfairly favored the rich, like Gary Cooper’s beleaguered everyman in Capra’s Meet John Doe. It didn’t work very well then and it works even less well now. 

Despite the mawkish sentimentality embedded in the presentation of its theme and the presence of so many one-dimensional characters, Cinderella Man rides Crowe’s performance and its meticulous period details to a generally satisfying conclusion. Perhaps this wasn’t quite the way it actually was, but it’s certainly Howard’s view of how it should have been. If you like your movies over-easy on the brain with a side order of treacle, this one’s for you.         

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