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Olden boy
Family values score a knockout in Cinderella Man
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Cinderella Man's official Web site

Unlike his hero, Ron Howard never bothers to develop a left hook in his affecting Cinderella Man. True, mounted police trample one of Jim Braddock’s neighbors to death when he joins the protest in a "Hooverville," a makeshift camp for those the Depression left unemployed. A sad case, but the guy was a hothead and not a reliable family man. Jim, on the other hand, is an uncomplaining toiler and a true-blue provider who would repay the relief office the money it gave him in his hardest times. He’d be the last to blame anyone else for his misfortunes, certainly not the government or society or the capitalists who raked in the bucks from the blood and sweat shed on the docks and in the ring. Braddock will take it all on his granitic chin and persevere and become heavyweight champion of the world. He was the underdog hero of the masses, the "Cinderella Man," as Damon Runyon titled him. That’s the fairy tale that Ron Howard believes in, and so will most of those who see his movie.

The bad news for cynics like me is that the film not only succeeds in its manipulations but is also, in essence, true. If Paul Schaap’s biography is to be believed, the New Jersey–born common man did embody all the simple virtues the film credits him with, and a few others too complicated to fit in. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman might have distorted Braddock the way they did John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, but they didn’t need to. Except for a little fancy footwork to underline the obvious and skew the ambiguous, the inspiring story was there for the taking. It required only a detailed production to evoke the chill and the soot of the 1930s, a decent screenplay to incorporate the sport’s colorful argot, and some rousing, Thomas Eakins–like bouts to put a crowd-pleasing and Oscar-enticing gloss on the plight of the individual in the face of universal calamity.

Casting helps too. Russell Crowe brings to mind a doughy John Garfield as Braddock, a man comfortable in his own efficient flesh and matter-of-fact about his ability to knock out the most formidable opponents with his vaunted right hand. He doesn’t talk much; he leaves that to his manager, Joe Gould, who’s played with almost irritating energy by Paul Giamatti. Indeed, Cinderella Man is a buddy film, with Jim seeking refuge with Joe in the ring from the Evil Stepmother. That would be RenŽe Zellweger at her pastiest as Jim’s wife, a weak sister who nags him when there’s not enough money to buy milk for their three kids and nags him again when he earns it in the ring because she’s afraid he might get hurt. Give us a break, Mae. No wonder Jim spends so much time wandering the waterfront.

That’s after his initial success as a young, up-and-coming light heavyweight in the late ’20s. But like the overwrought capitalism of America itself, Braddock relied too much on his right. A series of fractures of his right hand coincided with the collapse of the stock market, and after a string of lackluster bouts, he’s on the street and waiting dockside with the rest of the refuse in the hope of getting picked to unload shipping for paltry wages. You wonder that Howard and Goldsman don’t throw in a Rocky-style montage demonstrating how Braddock’s work with a baling hook built up his left arm and helped him reinvent himself as a fighter and begin his unlikely comeback.

Howard, of course, can’t blame the system for his hero’s travails, so he posits a few villains. Max Baer is played by Craig Bierko as a cross between a heavy-metal star and Mike Tyson. On the way to the heavyweight championship, he’s killed two men in the ring, and he has only contempt for the sport and his adversaries. Braddock fights because he needs to feed the kids; Baer is in it for the fame and fortune and the babes. Twenty-five years ago, Baer would have been the focus of this film, a charismatic, conflicted anti-hero. Now he’s a scapegoat. In one unfortunate, no doubt invented scene, Jim and Mae are set up to confront Baer at a fancy restaurant on the eve of the title bout. The natty champion is a pig, suggesting that he and Mae get together after he kills her hubby in the fight. Braddock wins this round with his quiet dignity; he’ll do his talking in the ring.

And Howard does transform what some have described as the dullest championship bout in history into an epic event. More engaging, though, is an earlier scene in which Braddock, driven to desperation, enters a club full of boxing cronies hat in hand, begging for rent money. If this indeed ever happened, it might have the most courageous act of a man whom Joe Louis (who KO’d Braddock in the eighth round of the new champ’s first title defense) called the most courageous man he ever fought. For Crowe, it might be his most brilliant moment on screen. It’s a reminder, too, that for every Cinderella Man in the ’30s, there were a million others saying, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?"

Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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