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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Cinderella Man" (2005)

Let’s not pretend that Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man” is anything more than superficial committee-based Oscar Bait disguised as The Sleeper Hit of the Summer. It has all the earmarks of your typical summer release geared towards adults that stands destined for Academy glory. It’s a period piece boxing drama starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti. I see Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Cinematography, Editing, Screenplay and Director. You can write it all down right now. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it also doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the damn thing, either.

It just so happens that I like Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and especially Paul Giamatti. It also just so happens that Ron Howard excels at this sort of thing. He makes good, crowd-pleasing entertainment, pure and simple. Sure, he’s derivative and never really takes chances, but he manages to craft some solid pieces of entertainment. Besides, at this time of the year, when just about everything else at the multiplex makes you want to punch your own lights out, are you really going to complain about a well-made, well-acted, formulaic sports movie? Me neither.

This one tells the story of James J. Braddock (Crowe), a heavyweight champion in 1929 who breaks his hand, loses a few fights and becomes a victim of the Great Depression. While his wife, Mae (Zellweger), looks after their kids, Jim goes to the docks and hopes to get picked to haul some freight for a day’s pay. Sometimes he gets picked, sometimes he doesn’t. For the Braddock’s (and just about every other working stiff at the time), every day is a drama about which will get cut first, the electricity or the gas? One day, his former manager, Joe Gould (Giamatti), offers James the chance to relive his glory days in a one-time-only fight.

Do you see where this is going? Of course, you do. I bet you can already hear the “I can’t bear to watch you almost get killed again” speech from the wife. Or the hushed silence of crowds at the high points of the fights. Or the Celtic score by Thomas Newman that accompanies the montages, especially after the first mention of the Luck of the Irish. And I bet you can already predict the drama that takes place as each fight gets tougher and tougher. You know it, you’ve seen it and you’ve been here a hundred times already.

So, what makes Braddock’s story worth telling? I guess at a time when boxing has become more of a flashy sport than one of substance, it’s important to go back to a time when sports figures became necessary to lift a country out of its misery (see also last summer’s Oscar bait, “Seabiscuit”). Braddock failed in life just as everyone else had at the time. When he made money, he didn’t flaunt it, but gave it back to the people. He had a bond with those who struggled at the time and became a sports figure the masses could appreciate for more than his skill.

The role fits Crowe perfectly. He plays Braddock with nervous charm and hidden strength. He’s a vulnerable character who doesn’t always let you see the fighter in him. In one unexpected moment, Braddock gives a smile that reveals another layer of his character and gave me another reason to stay in my seat and keep watching. Zellweger makes the most of the wife/mother role even though she spends most of the movie looking worried. And I think we all knew that Giamatti would one day play the Manager role in a bio-pic and he fills it nicely.

Any boxer will tell you that the goal in the ring is not to hit, but to avoid being hit. Essentially, that’s the story behind “Cinderella Man.” It’s not really about winning, but about surviving. Braddock became an inspiration not because of his ability to throw punches, but because he could take a punch and not let it knock him out completely. “Cinderella Man” doesn’t face any uphill battles of its own. It’s a well-made, entertaining film that will please the masses which, considering the Great Depression of Cinema where we currently reside, is something of an inspiration in and of itself.

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