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Movie Review: Cinderella Man.

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Let’s dispel any rumors that the movie was alternately titled, “Seabiscuit in a Ring” or “Rocky Rocks the Depression”.

Had the filmmakers not drawn on the true story of James J. Braddock, they might have been sued or at least accused of appropriating from those other movies. Certainly, similarities abound; it’s a Rocky-like underdog story set against the backdrop of the “Great Depression”. Nevertheless, Cinderella Man stands on its own and excels beyond them.

This story chronicles the inspiring comeback of James Braddock during 1933-34. Despite losing nearly everything, Braddock refused to abandon his integrity, his commitment to his family or his faith in his country. For example, he counseled his son, “No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever.” He eschewed the radical political philosophy espoused by an angry friend, and instead expressed confidence in FDR’s ability to bring the country back. Braddock also subjugated his pride to ensure that his family would not be fragmented. He eventually took private and public assistance for a time (but later repaid), and worked as a laborer on the docks (even with a broken hand). Conversely, although the film does not overtly convey a message of Braddock’s abandonment of religion during these severe times, two scenes at least suggest his faith waned. First, when praying with his wife, he confessed, “I’m all prayed out”. Second, his priest asked him why he hadn’t been to church.

Recovering from injuries that ravaged his boxing career, Braddock fought his way back into an unlikely heavyweight title. He did so against the ominously portrayed Max Baer, who is (probably unfairly) villainized here. Clubber Lang fared better against Rocky fans than Baer did with the audience at my screening.

In this light, the movie uses the primal or base aspects of boxing as its vehicle–replete with bone jarring hits. However, the movie does not require a pugilist’s attitude to enjoy.

If anything, the movie is about universally accessible relationships: with Braddock’s family; with his own character and integrity; and with his self-sacrificing friend, manager and trainer Joe Gould (ably played by Paul Giamatti).

No review of this movie can be complete without revisiting Russell Crowe’s craftsmanship. Following his tour de forces in Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, Crowe transforms himself yet again for this role. He has the unparalleled ability to convey a War and Peace-like volume of emotion and delineation in his simple, “I’m sorry”, delivered to his wife Mae (played by Renee Zellweger) near the nadir of their lives. It’s approaching the point where I would pay to see Mr. Crowe dramatize a phone book.

Director Ron Howard has taken some criticism that the movie tends toward the sentimental. Of course it does. It makes no pretensions about being a “feel-good” movie. So, embrace it. Feel good while watching it, and when you’re done watching, you can feel good reminiscing about it too.

Cinderella Man receives an “A”.

(Full disclosure: the fine folks at Universal and Grace Hill Media arranged for me to attend a free preview.)

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About Richard J. Radcliffe