Ron Howard’s new movie, Cinderella Man, stars Russell Crowe as boxer James J. Braddock. Braddock earned the nickname “Cinderella Man” when he came back from a failed career and the depths of the Great Depression to upset heavyweight champion, Max Baer, in 1935. It is sort of like a 1930′s version of Rocky, but I hesitate to make the comparison, because A) it really happened and B) it’s all-around a much better movie.
Braddock was a top contender in the late 1920′s, but he lost everything after a couple of defeats and the Stockmarket Crash of 1929. After that, he lost more fights than he won, and eventually no one would hire him. He took odd jobs down at the docks and stood in bread lines to keep his family together. In 1934, he got a lucky break and became a last-minute stand-in against John “Corn” Griffin. Everyone expected him to be the designated punching bag, but he knocked out Griffin in 3 rounds. After similar upsets against top contenders, John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky, he got a title shot against Max Baer. Overcoming 10-to-1 odds, he defeated Baer and became the heavyweight champion. An excellent recap of his history is at East Side Boxing.
What surprised me was how closely Howard followed the true story. After reading up on Braddock, about the only thing I see that’s different from the actual events is the portrayal of Baer as a snarling heavy. Baer was much more of a clowning goofball than a serial killer. While mentioning that Baer killed two men in the ring, the film does not bring up the fact that Baer donated the money from his subsequent bouts to the victim’s family and lost four of his next six fights due to his fear that he might do it again. Consider it a nit picked, however. The rest of the history is as accurate as you can get inside a major Hollywood film. I almost wish they went further into Braddock’s life, as he went on to fight and lose to Joe Louis in almost as dramatic a fashion as when he defeated Baer.
The movie itself is nothing you haven’t seen before. Lots of touching moments followed by “claw your way back from the pit of despair” victories. Crowe is excellent as Braddock, possibly earning him an Oscar nod if the film had come out a little closer to nominating time. I doubt that anyone will remember it by then. Renee Zellweger is her usual cute self as Braddock’s wife, Mae, but nothing that’s going to earn her any awards.
The real star of the film, and the one who really drags you into it emotionally, is Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s friend and manager, Joe Gould. He’s what Burgess Meredith was to the aforementioned “Rocky”. Giamatti’s your surrogate in the movie. He’s you standing there, utterly amazed as Braddock again and again overcomes the odds. I think that without him this would have been a ho-hum two hours. It reminds me of how Tommy Lee Jones rescued the last Howard film I saw: The Missing (substitute Crowe for Cate Blanchett). The story’s nothing special, really, but the performances of Giamatti and Crowe make it a joy to watch most of the time.
While I wouldn’t say it was the best movie I’ve ever seen, it wasn’t bad. I’d definitely sit down and watch it if it came on TV some Sunday afternoon. And that’s not such a terrible thing at all.