A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 144 mins.
Russell Crowe: Jim Braddock / Renee Zellweger: Mae Braddock / Paul Giamatti: Joe Gould / Connor Price: Jay Braddock
Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman / Directed by Ron Howard
When I am frequently asked what makes for the most memorable film going experience I always seem to inevitably answer with the same response. I think that the truly transcending pictures are the ones that sort of act on me with a seemingly out-of-body allure. To be more specific, I see the great films as ones that are able to successful transport me to another time and/or place and effectively place me, almost as a neutral eyewitness, to the events that unfold for the next two hours or so.
Some of the finest films that I have been exposed to have this type of transfixing power to make me consciously forget that I am in a movie theatre and instead allow me to become fully engrossed and engaged in the world of the movie. George Lucas’ STAR WARS sextet comes to mind, with its exotic and otherworldly locales, or the firm and stark reality of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, or the majestic scenery of Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES, or the gritty violence of Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS. Ron Howard’s brilliant, confident, and assured new biopic, CINDERELLA MAN, works very much like the films mentioned. For its two and a half hours you become very easily lost in its portrayal of Depression era America.
CINDERELLA MAN is a true story and an inspirational boxing film that has echoes of a certain other fictional boxing hero that many remember climbing to the top against increasingly insurmountable odds. Yes, Ron Howard’s film will have many whispering that it’s apparently like the first ROCKY in many discernable ways. It too is about a lowlife boxer that tries to attain the unattainable at a time when everyone around him thinks that he’s a washed up bum and should call it quits. Like Rocky Balboa, CINDERELLA MAN’S James J. Braddock was an underdog if there ever was one. He did start off as a modestly successful amateur boxer in his early career. When he turned pro in 1926 he chalked up a fairly respectable record (he even went on to fight light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran in 1929 for the title, but was defeated in a heartbreaking 15-round decision). However, with the infamous stock market crash of 1929 that spawned the National Great Depression, combined with a series of injuries that plagued him, Braddock struggled to win fights, was eventually decommissioned as a fighter, and found it difficult to even put food on his family’s table for much of the next decade.
However, within six years Braddock staged a daring comeback and on June 13, 1935 in Long Island he went on to beat the then heavyweight champion of the world – Max Baer – in a stunning 15 round unanimous decision. The fact that he beat Baer was considered an amazing upset by boxing pundits, not to mention a miracle by most of the nation. Braddock was a 10 to 1 underdog and Baer had the well-deserved reputation as a career killer in the ring. He did, in fact, kill two boxers with his powerful blows in pervious fights. There can be no denying the fact that James Braddock was a “Cinderella Man” if there ever was one in the annals of American sports history.
Ron Howard’s film is a glorious retelling of this incredible, inspirational, and miraculous story of the precipitous fall and mighty rise of one of boxing’s greatest heroes. I don’t think that I have given away the film as a whole by relaying the particulars of Braddock’s life (which is fairly common knowledge among most adept students of American history), nor should this be used as a crutch to pigeonhole the film as being pedestrian or routine. Yes, the story of Braddock’s life has many similarities to a certain Italian Stallion and, yes, he too was a good-for-nothing has-been who rallied himself for ultimate moral and literal victory. However, I think it’s somewhat redundant to say that CINDERELLA MAN is a formulaic intrusion into a genre of film that has been done many countless times before. If the film were fiction I would be tougher on it, but since the film is an account of actual history, it’s really hard to discredit it. Instead, I look at how well the film is done and handled. Under the sensitive and secure eyes of Howard behind the camera, CINDERELLA MAN emerges as one of 2005’s very best films.
The film is a very curious hybrid of themes that work very well on their individual levels. Firstly, it’s a truly inspirational and uplifting film of survival and overcoming odds. More than that, it also is a vivid, moving, and focused portrayal of the Great Depression and the lengths that families went to in order to squeak out a barely meagre living to support themselves. Beyond being a story of motivation and a historical recount of our recent history’s darkest decade, the biopic also succeeds as a pure boxing-action film, with moments of mayhem that kind of have a messy, chaotic, and kinetic poetry that similar fight scenes in Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL had. Combined with all of this is Oscar calibre performances by some of the film’s leads, an astoundingly realistic sense of period design in the film’s art direction and sets that lends great verisimilitude to the proceedings, and you have the recipe of a great entertainment.
Russell Crowe again churns out another Oscar worthy turn playing Braddock here, and we are introduced to him early on in the film as a successful fighter that would easily take in thousands of dollars for any fight. He was successful financially and a well respected fighter. We see early ring victories, like the opening scenes in November of 1928. Braddock is the “Bulldog of Bergen” during this period and a confident up-and-comer that clearly has a chance to go all the way to the top of the light heavyweight division. He was universally known during this period in boxing circles for his healthy tenacious streak and a formidable right hand. His loving wife Mae, played effectively by Renee Zellweger, always waits at home to hear of his fight’s outcome, seeing as she can never bring herself to go to bouts herself and watch them.
Disaster soon strikes for the Braddock family. The film sharply jump-cuts five years into the Great Depression and Jim’s good luck seems to be as lacking as anyone else’s in the country at this time. He has slowly become a downtrodden boxer with minimal skills who now is lucky to get a few dollars for a fight for participating in third-rate bouts. He suddenly breaks his hand in one fight, which spells complete doom for his career and he subsequently becomes a longshoreman. Unfortunately for James, jobs are incredible few and far between, not to mention completely unreliable. The unemployment rate was at a record high and James finds himself completely destitute, not even able to pay for electricity or put food on his family’s table. In these regards, Howard is unflinching and uncompromising for portraying the Depression for what it was – a uniformly discouraging and gloomy period in our social-economic history where once affluent families were reduced to nothing. People, I feel, have lost a bit of healthy respect for what families went through during this tumultuous decade, where life was a never-ending struggle to not lose the basic necessities of existence. Braddock, completely in debt without a penny in the world, desperately needed a miracle.
Well, that miracle would come in the form of an exclusive offer of redemption by his former manager Joe Gould (played in the film’s other Oscar worthy performance by the most dependable character actor today, Paul Giamatti). Gould offers what seems, at this time, to be a fortune to Braddock - $250 – to fight with extremely little notice (one day’s worth, to be precise) a heavyweight contender. Everyone around him, including James himself, thinks that he does not have a snowball’s chance in h-e-double hockey sticks, but Braddock defies all of the odds with a stunning third round knockout over Corn Griffith, which subsequently propels him to a series of other incredible victories. Eventually, after more uplifting battles and successes, Braddock finds himself in a title fight with the ferocious champion Max Baer, who despite having never apparently bitten anyone’s ear off, he nevertheless managed to kill two other boxers in the ring. Well, to take a mantra from another famous sports upset, “do you believe in miracles?”
The most effective aspect of CINDERELLA MAN is just how tense and exciting the film is despite its completely anti-climatic narrative. Much like last year’s other terrific story of determination, MIRACLE, or another sporting film that is more similar in nature, SEABISCUIT, CINDERELLA MAN still manages to be intense and enthralling, especially in the boxing scenes. It is clear that Howard chiefly studied RAGING BULL, and although he does not get as expressionistic with the mayhem that Scorsese did, his fights are painted with equally brutal and visceral strokes. The fighting here is kind of a middle ground between Scorsese’s 1980 film and ROCKY – they are not surreal nor or they exploitative and unrealistic. Howard’s boxing scenes are cagey, disorganized and hectic, much like the real thing.
Even more impressive is Howard’s painfully astute attention to period details, and his film is a masterpiece of set design, art direction, and cinematography. Working with production designer Wynn Thomas and costume designer Daniel Orlandi, Howard confidently and effortlessly evokes the time and place right down to the smallest details. While watching this film I was kind of reminded of the great period detail that occupied other historical works like Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, where the more you watched that film the less conscious you are of its artifice. CINDERELLA MAN is a truly out-of-body experience that encapsulates its time so effectively you think that you’ve entered a virtual reality-time machine and stepped on to the streets of New Jersey circa mid 1930’s.
Ultimately, though, it’s the film’s engaging and spot-on performances that make the film a winner. Russell Crowe has been an actor that I have admired for years, and his resume alone is entirely reflective of his enormous range as a performer (from a war hero in GLADIATOR, to a scientist in THE INSIDER, to a navel sea captain in MASTER AND COMMANDER, to a famous mathematician in A BEAUTIFUL MIND) and with CINDERELLA MAN I think that he can succinctly cement his reputation along with the lights of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino as one of the best actors working today. His portrayal of Braddock is layered and textured, not to mention fresh in a way. He is not the stereotypical, monosyllabic brut that have occupied other boxing films. Here he’s a loving family man that is completely selfless and honorable.
In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments Braddock is forced to go to a local club that is populated by some of his old boxing buddies that are now high rollers. With the threat of losing his home and family, he literally holds out his hat and quietly begs for money. It’s one of the more poignant and touching scenes all year, and Crowe here is graceful in selling the moment. Giamatti effectively rounds off the cast and brings such a desperate urgency and resiliency to his role as the manager. It would be completely unbearable if the Academy forgets him once again as they did with his work in AMERICAN SPLENDOR and last year’s SIDEWAYS. Crowe and Giamatti combine for a strong one-two punch that allows the film to resonate in deep and penetrating ways.
CINDERELLA MAN is a bold and grand entertainment - a simple, pure, and enriching story of brave determination, courage, and defying all possible odds. James Braddock was a real hero in every sense of the word, as he was not really just fighting to regain a sense of self respect like Rocky, but more or less to ensure the survival of his family and to be able to just simply feed them. He did all of this under the cautious and critical eyes of the boxing world and at an age when most boxers were retired. The film’s structure is preordained and even people unfamiliar with Braddock’s life will be able to see where it's going, but as a rousing and moving biopic and a meditation on a desperate historical time for America, CINDERELLA MAN rarely loses its way. The film is a straightforward, down-to-earth fairy tale told with undemanding elegance and tactfulness. It’s really a captivating and powerful film with flawless production values, great performances, and is done with the right level of restrained gravitas that does the story of James Braddock justice. This is truly one of Ron Howard’s best films to date.