Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cinderella Man / **** (PG-13)

James J. Braddock: Russell Crowe
Mae Braddock: Renee Zellwerger
Joe Gould: Paul Giamatti
Max Baer: Craig Bierko
Mike Wilson: Paddy Considine
Jimmy Johnson: Bruce McGill
Universal Pictures and Miramax Films present a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Running time: 144 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense boxing violence and some language).

The opening moments of “Cinderella Man”, a chronicle of the fall and resurrection of the depression era prizefighter James J. “Bulldog” Braddock, are quiet -- especially when juxtaposed with the roar of the crowd from the boxing ring sequences later in the film. It is as if the characters are afraid to disturb their own fragile existence. In the scenes before the depression when Braddock first tasted success it seems as if he and his family are flying below the radar, trying not to squander their success. But the stock market crash dropped almost everything in the sky, brokers and prizefighters alike; and as the Braddocks struggle through their poverty just to keep the lights and heat on in their miserable New Jersey basement apartment, they remain quiet, as if the slightest pin drop might shatter what little they have left.

Russell Crowe (“Master & Commander”) plays Braddock as one of the most honorable men who ever breathed American air. His goodness makes his fall from grace all that more painful. Braddock was on his way to the big time when the film opens, then director Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”) skips ahead four years later in Braddock’s story, in the midst of The Great Depression. Like many others, Braddock has had a rough time of it due to injuries, investments that went south in the stock market crash and just plain bad luck.

Braddock has one thing that many people at the time struggled much harder to keep, a happy family. Renee Zellwerger (“Cold Mountain”) plays Mae, Braddock’s faithful wife. Living in squalor, wondering if they would even have milk the next day, Mae keeps a positive outlook on their lives despite her misgivings about the physical risk involved in her husband’s boxing career. When Mae’s worst fears are realized by what looks to be a career ending injury to Braddock’s strong hand, their hard times become all that much harder.

Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman (“I, Robot”) do a superb job evoking the desperation of the Depression; a job made more difficult by the fact that their hero is so good that even when one of his three children steals meat when the family has nothing left to eat, he still makes the boy take the meat back to uphold his good values when most people in their situation would not. The fact that this family is so good helps to drive home the blind nature of poverty and highlights the reality that no one is willing to help these people because no one can afford to give up anything. This presents a heart-wrenching scene when Braddock returns to a social club for boxing officials to beg for just $19 to turn his heat back on so he won’t have to break his family up.

One of the men who does help his ruined former associate is the man who was a good manager for Braddock, Joe Gould. Played by Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”), Gould is the other side of the coin of the depression, a man who survives through keeping up appearances. Gould never loses his faith in Braddock and when an opportunity presents itself to gain Braddock another fight despite the Boxing Commission’s view that Braddock is washed up, Gould doesn’t skip a beat getting his old friend back in the ring. The rub, revealed in a scene where Mae goes to Gould’s home to beg him not to risk her husband’s physical health again, is that Gould is in just as big a need for a turn around as Braddock.

Back in the ring again, Braddock is now fueled by all the desperation he felt in his years of poverty, and soon finds himself in the Heavyweight Championship match against the ferocious Max Baer (Craig Bierko, “The Thirteenth Floor”). Much is made of the fact that Max Baer killed two men in the ring, which is an interesting choice to build tension in a true story where it is easy enough to find out how the match between Baer and Braddock turned out, but the drama of the situation still works because of Braddock’s zeal for his pursuit and his wife’s dread from the poor luck which has befallen their family.

Howard’s approach to the material is straightforward, yet crafty in its manipulation of the story for the greatest emotional effect. He merely shows us that Braddock has tasted success in the first few minutes of the movie, but never allows us to see or feel Braddock journey to that point. Instead Howard throws his audience into the midst of the Depression and Braddock’s lowest point after only five minutes have passed. Braddock can only climb from that point. It is a slow ascent, in which Howard seduces his audience with the Braddock’s dire circumstances and converse good nature that the feel-good nature of the film is never overbearing and even the most morbid of viewers can find themselves cheering this greatest of underdogs on by the end of the film.

Howard’s fight sequences reflect the underlying style of the film, seeming simpler than they are. While never pretending to be as simple as Clint Eastwood’s matter of fact direction in last year’s boxing picture “Million Dollar Baby”, many of the film techniques Howard uses, like showing the confusion of a fighter by blurring focus and overexposing the film, are nothing new to the genre. There are other shots, like the almost subliminal x-ray of the ribs as they are pummeled by a blow to the side, inspire a cringe that can no longer be experienced by simply watching yet another boxer get punched in the side.

It is such a unique balance Howard discovers here between the biting realities of a typical biopic and the happy clich├ęs of the Hollywood comeback performance, that this film feels like neither. It is almost as if it exists in it own genre, almost a fantasy piece that somehow is not a fantasy. This is perhaps what the experience of returning to the grandest heights after a career burnout may have felt like to Braddock himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey! I saw the movie Heat the other night. I read a book, too. I have a dettached retina. Bye.