When Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man came out earlier this year, it was presented as an inspirational, feel-good story. I remember watching the trailers for the film, with the tagline that “when the nation was on its knees, he brought them to their feet,” and thinking that it seemed as though they used almost the same marketing campaign for Seabiscuit. While the movie sounded intriguing, it wasn’t enough to move me to the theater. However, with the film now available on DVD, I thought it would be worth a look. And I’m glad I did, because while Cinderella Man is your basic inspirational saga, it is also a pretty good movie along the way.
Russell Crowe plays James J. Braddock, a respected and talented young boxer whose career seemingly tracks the stock market crash and the country’s entry into the Great Depression. A series of injuries slow him and he freefalls from his position as a likely contender for the championship. As his family strugges to keep the heat on and food on the table, Braddock fights hurt in an effort to get the money to pay his mounting bills. He breaks his already-broken hand in the ring, and is subsequently stripped of his boxing license and left to struggle for an occasional shift down on the docks.
The film deals with the challenge of maintaining one’s pride in the face of mounting economic woes. At one point, Braddock is forced to beg his former boxing acquantances for enough money to pay the delinquent heating bill so that his kids don’t have to be farmed out to relatives. Like many people during the Depression, Braddock also found himself going on “relief,” the national program of assistance; as with many of the government programs of the period, it smacked of charity and was hard for him to accept. When his former manager comes to him with an offer – a one fight deal, as a stiff for some upcoming young contender to wipe the ring with – Braddock agrees. Not because he thinks he has a shot; simply because the guaranteed $250 payout will put more distance between his kids and the street.
The problem is that the fight doesn’t go as planned. Braddock wins in a stunning upset. The left hand that had never been a particularly effective weapon had been strengthed while he worked the docks with a cast on his right hand. He recaptures a spark of his former self and knocks the guy out. His manager works out a deal with the boxing commission, and suddenly Braddock has something he never expected to receive – a second chance.
Since the film tracks Braddock’s “inspirational” comeback, one can only expect that he keeps winning, at least for a while. But the interesting aspects of the film are found in the small moments of Depression-era life. One fascinating thread involved the obvious economic disparity between those who still had something and those, like Braddock, who had next to nothing (and, as he said at one point, nothing left to sell). And I thought the filmmakers did an interesting thing with Jay Gould, played by Paul Giamatti, during the scene where Braddock is begging his boxing associates for enough money to “get his kids back.” Braddock approaches Gould last, and Gould doesn’t just hand him a couple of bucks. He finds out how much Braddock is short, and covers the difference. The scene could be interpreted several ways, but it is most intriguing as the setup to a subsequent scene later in the film.
Further, despite the marketing of Cinderella Man as an inspirational tale in the vein of Seabuscuit, the narrative here is much more coherent and focused. Whereas Seabiscuit struggled for narrative consistency due to the split focus on three different characters, as well as attempting to dramatize the years which brought the characters to the point where they met, Cinderella Man is able to keep the narrative largely on Braddock and his struggles. The incorporation of some of the political upheaval of the time serves to maintain Braddock’s iconic isolation: he doesn’t believe in “organizing,” or unionizing, or that sort of thing. He wants to get through on his own. He wants to fight his way through his problems, just as he would punch his way through an opponent in the ring.
The use of some trick cinematography during the fight sequences was a little distracting, but added to the sense of hyper-realism. The relationship between Braddock and his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger) is portrayed quite weil. While the film admittedly trades a bit much on the stock images of melodrama (for example, the constant cuts away to interested/concerned fans, all listening to Braddock’s fights by radio), for the most part it manages to avoid slipping into excessive sentimentality. Instead, there’s a sense of reality in Braddock’s press conference observation that he now knows what he’s fighting for – “milk.”
Howard’s film benefits from excellent performances by Crowe, Zellweger, and Giamatti. Crowe’s face and cocky enthusiasm seem tailor-made for the part. Zellweger is effective as the supportive but nervous wife, and Giamatti almost bursts with energy during the boxing sequences. The film skillfully leads to its inevitable conclusion – Braddock’s title bout against heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), which is considered one of the great fights in the sports’ history. All in all, it was a solid film that managed to balance sentimentality with honesty as it tracked the true story of a man who made the most of his second chance.
The DVD features include deleted scenes, commentary by Ron Howard and writers Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth, a featurette on the film’s casting, and more. There’s an interesting featurette on boxing history and another on Braddock himself called “The Friends & Family Behind the Legend.” All together, there’s plenty for fans of the film to explore