Cinema Signal:

Cinderella Man
By Michael DeLisa

. "Cinderella Man"

As a director, Ron Howard's inclination toward balancing history and sentiment in the fabrication of a mythology has produced the occasional winner ("A Beautiful Mind"). He now applies that sensibility to this biography of a man who reminded a nation during the mean years of the depression what determination can do to triumph over adversity.

In his earlier years, Irishman Jim (James) Braddock (Russell Crowe, "Master and Commander," "Gladiator") is a middleweight boxer with promise. In his corner as his primary supporter is manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti of "Sideways" fame). At home, his loving wife Mae (Renee Zellwegger, "Cold Mountain," "Jerry Maguire") supports her husband's chosen profession and takes pride in what he's managed to accomplished, though she never attends a match. His success provides well for the couple and their three kids. The smart breadwinner even invests in the stock market.

And then, two disasters hit like roundhouse punches. Just as Wall Street suffers the crash of '29, Braddock suffers injuries to his powerful right hand--and he never had much of a left. After a bout that elicits jeers from the crowd, big time promoter Jimmy Johnston decommissions Braddock.

In the employment vacuum of the depression, Braddock finds work at the docks, where a one-day job is a hit and miss proposition. He and Mae slowly sell their belongings and move into a cold-water flat. When his oldest boy steals a sausage, Braddock shows his unalterable sense of values by making him return it and pledges that he'll never send him away for want of food.

As things refuse to improve, with debts piling up, without a coin for public transportation, Braddock finally accepts public assistance. He's even reduced to begging from his former boxing associates and is outraged when Mae sends the kids to her parents'. But it's only bread and potatoes on their table.

From these survival conditions during the desperate year of 1934, the return that will turn him into a front page phenomenon starts with the offer of a one-time fight as a replacement in a scheduled bout. Against all odds and expectations, he wins. Gould successfully negotiates another fight by demonstrating to promoter Johnston how profitable it could be, win or lose. Braddock is ecstatic. Given that his right hand has healed, and his left has been developed by his work on the docks, his career is anything but over. In his future is getting into the ring as a 10:1 underdog with the heavyweight title-holder and, as portrayed, a slime-ball of a human being, Max Baer.

The victories of this written-off "has-been" dumbfound boxing fans and sports writers. Damon Runyon dubs him the "Cinderella Man." But, why does this "true" story have the look of artifice and Hollywood gloss the minute it steps out of the ring? Why is the period "look" such a conventional simulation achieved by the standard prop shop fare, wardrobe department vests and caps, period hairdos and sepia toning?

With Howard's insistent push to let no bleeding heart go unfulfilled after his relatively unrewarded and more challenging The Missing, and Zellwegger's complicity in holding down the fort of weepy repetition, one may wonder why the movie works as well as it does. The answer, of course, is Crowe -- his no-contest presence, his command of the screen, his harnessing of big skills in a tight rein. His athleticism is no phony simulation, either. When his arms are raised in victory, you get a screen full of muscle. He punches the bag as vigorously as any fighter, and his ringside choreography in Howard's excellent fight staging is as convincing as it gets in boxing movies.

Because of the indomitable spirit he conveys, I have to dub the movie a powerful combo of history, decency, sentiment and knowing how to ring an audience's bell. The choice of Crowe to portray Braddock is a knockout punch.

Captions for these photos of the real Jim Braddock:
1. Joe Louis & Jim (James) Braddock
2. Jim Braddock in an action pose
3. Jim Braddock with manager Joe Gould, wins decision over Tommy Farr. Madison Square Garden, 1938
4. Jim Braddock shows his title belt at the North Bergen Boys Club

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti
Facing an injured right hand and what it portends


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