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June 03, 2005

Cinderella Man


For those of you who've been asleep for the last year, Cinderella Man tells the story of Jim Braddock, a boxer who could have been one of the great ones, struggling to keep his family fed, alive, and together, through the Depression. (Actual starvation, unthinkable in America today and unimaginable for most of us, was a real threat. It's been 70 years since the events the film depicts, but I can promise you I'll never look at food the same way again.) His boxing comeback becomes an inspiration to millions. I remember as a kid listening to some late 1930s radio show where one of the characters makes a crack about Braddock. I can't remember the joke, but at least now I know what he was talking about.

The film opens with a still photo of a boxer's face, grotesquely distorted at the moment of impact by a gloved fist. The face is some unknown fighter. The fist belongs to Jim "Bulldog of Bergen" Braddock, on his way up the ladder to a light heavyweight title fight. Throughout the fight scenes, a particularly hard blow to the head will come with a blinding white light, both from the punch and from the cameras, mixing the brutality of the sport with its entertainment value. Yes, you do believe these men are really fighting, not just putting on some stunt-double ballet to advance the plot.

That night in late , Braddock goes home to his wife, Mae, and his family. The chemistry between them is immediate and real. Zellweger exudes adoration for her husband, although she's obviously not thrilled about his making a living getting hit. They both are willing to buy into the boxer's eternal dream of beating the game, retiring with a title belt, a nest egg, and all his marbles and most of his health intact.

The next scene, all that's over. It's the Depression. Braddock has a broken right hand, he's fighting (literally) with a broken right hand to put food on the table. Braddock had had his chance in 1929, but dropped the light heavyweight championship fight in Yankee Stadium. Between the Depression which swallowed up his winnings, and a series of injuries including a broken right hand, he had pretty much lost everything except his family.

Cinderella Man follows Braddock's comeback, culminating with a championship bout against Max Baer that can only be described as combat.

Not having lived through the 30s, I can't testify to the accuracy of the mood of the time, but it sure seems that way. It conveys that sense of hardness, toughness, desperation, that we associate with 1934. The look of the time is pitched perfectly. There's a scene, maybe a second or two, where Braddock is on the bus riding from New Jersey to Manhattan for the fight with Baer. He looks out the window, and the crowd scene could have been plucked from a 1939 still photo at the World's Fair that Lileks is always going on about.

The one historical objection I have is to the portrayal of Max Baer. Yes, Baer did really kill one man in the ring (not two, as the movie would have it). But Baer never made hay out of it, and in fact he was so shaken by it, it almost ruined his career. He donated a number of purses to the dead man's family, and lost a number of fights after that one, in part from fear of a repeat. The idea of the real Baer taunting Braddock the way he does in the movie is absurd, and the real Braddock's family says as much.

Braddock himself is an immensely appealing hero, perfect for Ron Howard. It's just as well that the movie takes place 70 years ago. Today, in an era when the registered coyote services drop the illegals off at the welfare office, it's hard to imagine a man paying back his public assistance money when he's flush again. Crowe pulls the whole thing off beautifully, though, makes the man both believable and heroic. He's a man, a mensch, for whom taking responsibility isn't even a question. If Tom Hanks is this generation's Jimmy Stewart, Russell Crowe is channeling William Holden.

The other performances are magnificent. Zellweger inhabits Mae, as she listens - possibly for the first time - to the 15th round of the Baer fight, we feel her feeling every punch Jim takes. Paul Giamatti makes us care about Joe Gould, Braddock's manager, and Bruce McGill is all business as the boxing promoter with the New Jersey Boxing Commission under his thumb.

Normally during a film, often just before it starts to build towards the climax, there's a point when I realize I'm watching a movie, when I look at the edges of the screen, maybe check the time.

Never happened. This is one for the ages.

Posted by joshuasharf at June 3, 2005 09:34 AM | TrackBack

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