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June 8, 2005

Cinderella Man

When was the last time you saw a movie about a truly good, genuine, uncomplicated person? All movie heroes are good, but I can’t remember the last one who didn’t have some major emotional hurdle to overcome, like alcoholism or monstrous parents or haunting visions of ‘Nam. The utter lack of internal conflict is precisely what makes boxing legend Jim Braddock, the noble working class hero played by Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, one of the rare breed of screen characters like Atticus Finch and Jefferson Smith. He’s only concerned with doing what’s right and putting food on the table for his family. When his life is beset by tragedy – he breaks his hand in the ring and loses his license because he’s not exciting enough all while the Great Depression is starting to take hold – he doesn’t whine about it. He goes out with his cast covered in shoe polish and picks up shifts on the docks, lifting heavy bags with the hand that still works.

Cinderella Man is being advertised as a boxing movie, but that’s just a marketing angle. It’s about how a decent man can retain his humanity during an era that America has largely forgotten about, when being rich meant being able to eat, union organizers’ heads were bashed in with nightsticks and Central Park was converted into a massive shantytown resembling the outskirts of modern day Mexico City. Despite his hardships, Braddock continues to press on, not because of stupid, manly pride, but because of a self-sufficiency and can-do attitude at the very core of the generation that gave birth to the Greatest Generation.

I know this all sounds hokey on paper, but it works marvelously onscreen. You don’t think about sports movie conventions when the One Big Fight comes at the end, or that things will brighten up for the simple reason that Ron Howard couldn’t make a movie that doesn’t affirm the richness of the human spirit if a gun was being held to his head. You only think about the sad truth that if Braddock “worked 26 out of 24 hours in the day” he wouldn’t be able to afford to get the heat turned back on in the dead of winter when his son is burning up with fever.

It’s a testament to Howard’s talent and commitment to the material that he can make a cynical modern moviegoer like myself celebrate a film as earnest as this one. He has built up a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most dependable mainstream directors despite the Opie Factor. Though he can only scratch the surface of material as difficult and cerebral as A Beautiful Mind, he was born to make big old-fashioned epics like this. The film’s climactic final fight with the vicious/glamorous Max Baer (played with a sinister twinkle in his eye by Craig Bierko) is especially strong, pitting the flashiness of the privileged Baer against the austerity of the impoverished Braddock. Paul Giamatti may finally win the Oscar he so richly deserves as the loudmouthed boxing manager who masterminds Braddock’s comeback

But the movie is dependent upon and succeeds because of Russell Crowe’s triumphant performance. Though he acquired a reputation as a demanding hothead when he first became a marquee name, here he once again employs a unique combination of sincerity, intelligence, good looks and gravitas that is more common in charismatic politicians than actors. He can play a hero like nobody’s business (Master And Commander, Gladiator), but he’s a fantastic everyman, too.


  © copyright scott howard