“”Cinderella Man””–Good Acting in Depression Era Boxing Flick

There is nothing like an underdog story to get folks in a movie theater excited. The idea of someone going against the odds, and facing lots of hardship to achieve victory, is certainly a popular one. One of the ways this is done on film is generally in the sports category, and with a specific focus on boxing.

The movie “”Cinderella Man””, from director Ron Howard, deals with such a story, in this case the real-life fighter James Braddock (who earned the titular nickname from writer Damon Runyon), whose real-life career had its ups and downs. The film chooses to cover the period of Braddock’s life from 1928-1935, with reasons that—without revealing too much later become clear. Unfortunately, the flick shows little of the earlier part of the boxers career, but more on that later.The film begins with Braddock defeating Gerald “”Tuffy”” Griffith (Thomasz Kurzydlowski) in a bout in New York in 1928. At this point, the pugilist had amassed an outstanding array of knockouts, and garnered a large following as a result, not to mention a nice house for himself and his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger). He also had a close relationship with his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), and the two of them were doing quite well financially.The flick then shifts ahead to 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, and Braddock and his family, which now includes sons Jay (Connor Price) and Howard (Patrick Louis) and daughter Rosemarie (Ariel Waller) in addition to his wife, live in a tenement in North Bergen, NJ. He struggles to make ends meet, and is unable to pay for milk or even for heat (not a good thing in wintertime). His fighting career fares poorly also, due to his often-injured hands, and after a sparsely attended match in Mount Vernon, NY against Abe Feldman (David Litzinger) is called early by the officials, the local Boxing Commission, headed by Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) revokes Braddock’s license.As he now has no career, the protagonist competes regularly with a massive crowd to be one of the fortunate few picked for dock work; those who don’t get picked by the foremen for the day, receive no work, and hence no money. Braddock is forced to disguise his hand injury so as to be chosen for this job, and afterwards he befriends Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine) one of the others working there. Although he now has a job (for the time being), Crowe’s character is still concerned with making sure his family stays together, i.e. that his kids go off to live with a relative, something common at that time, and making sure his son Howard’s health improves.As his situation fails to improve, the lead character heads to the Emergency Relief Administration for assistance, and is even forced to visit the people he knew from his athletic days for help. After several months, however, his now ex-manager Gould visits him with an offer. In exchange for $250, Braddock will face off with Corn Griffin (Art Binkowski) in an undercard match to the main event, the Heavyweight Title match pitting Primo Carnera (Matthew G. Taylor) versus Max Baer (Craig Bierko).Among the effective aspects of the film is to depict the earlier, grittier days of the featured sport, before television (or pay-per-view for that matter), matches in big, fancy casino hotels, or even advances in plastic surgery. The title character takes one serious beating after another, even in situations where he literally has the upper hand. The viewer gets the sense of physical punishment for those involved, all while the protagonist’s livelihood is on the line.Granted, this is something depicted in many boxing movies. Still, “”Cinderella Man”” is also worthwhile for Crowe’s performance. It’s true that he’s proven he can dive into a wide array of roles (as to which Chris Rock’s Oscar monologue can certainly attest), but he seems to fit the part of a down-on-his-luck athlete well here. These range from the scenes where he preps for the fights, struggles to make a living, or especially the moment where he heads to a private club at Madison Square Garden and is reduced to extreme measures for his family’s sake (plus Crowe does bear a resemblance to Braddock himself).As far as the supporting cast goes, they do give good performances but are, after all, the supporting cast. Viewers accustomed to seeing Paul Giamatti in another lead role, or Renee Zellweger for that matter, might be disappointed that these two do not receive more screen time here. Zellweger has her highlights, namely when she has a discussion later in the film with Lucille Gould (Linda Kash), Joe’s wife, but otherwise most of the part involves being in scenes opposite Crowe’s Braddock.The fight scenes, which again are among this movie’s strongest points, are well choreographed, and certainly draws one in, even while the fights are in their respective corners between rounds receiving advice from their managers. Much of the last half hour strictly focuses on one bout in particular, and it will be obvious to boxing history enthusiasts which one it is. Still, despite all the positives, there is also the issue of why Bierko as Max Baer is done as a sneering—almost to the point of menacing–brute ho tries to rile others up, even outside the ring. Stories need their antagonists, and Baer was probably not the nicest guy around, but it probably wasn’t as necessary to have this part played or written (more likely) so exaggerated (except maybe as the evil stepmother to Braddock’s “”Cinderella””….well, maybe not).It would also have been interesting to have some more coverage of Braddock’s earlier boxing career. Most of that here is done in the first few minutes (set in 1928), with the Braddock-Griffith match, followed by Mae (Zellweger) mentioning other fights to her husband. It’s true that this flick is more geared towards the “”Cinderella”” aspect of Braddock’s life, but some more discussion of Braddock’s initial rise to fame might have been appreciated.While there are faults here, there is a decent enough ‘feel-good’ story to help audiences get through the summer season, and some fine acting to boot. It even seems better than the previous Crowe/Howard effort “”A Beautiful Mind””, in that it doesn’t resort to a glossed over, whimsical view of things. Rather, it is a basic, sometimes gritty, story of someone not only trying to excel at a sport, but to try to make things better for his family, and community, as well.Grade: BEM Review by Andrew Haas6/03/05

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