How sad that it takes a film to make the horror of The Great Depression real. Ron Howard, one of our best storytellers, does exactly that in Cinderella Man. Fifteen million unemployed sounds like a lot until you see Hooverville, the shack city erected in Central Park. Stock market collapse sounds bad until you see Renee Zellwegger, as James J. Braddock’s wife, run outside their basement hovel to cry over their youngest boy’s fever and cough. She can do nothing for him, they have no heat and no access to medical care.
Back then, less than three generations ago, there was no health care for the poor, nothing between the power company and the impoverished family, nothing to protect families from being thrown into the street. The homeless were everywhere, the social fabric was coming apart from the strain of too great a number of disenfranchised.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? There isn’t a controlled intersection in this city without a beggar with a sign. More than a third of the population use the emergency room as their doctor’s office. And it’s only going to get worse. As oil prices continue to rise and the economy reacts with inflation or stagflation or recession or depression those on the edge will be pushed over into poverty and homelessness. And we have no system to deal with it.
As long as Rupert Murdoch and the hacks at Fox continue to frame the discussion, we can expect the response from the government to be minimal to nonexistent. The gap between the rich and the rest of us grows daily, the chasm between the rich and the poor widens with each passing hour. The minimum wage allows a family of three to remain above the poverty level but God forbid they have a second child; it means poverty. While the average Congressman’s salary has gone up from $135,000 to $162,000 (that is almost $78.00 per hour, a true gross times the minimum wage) since the last time the minimum wage was hiked, the chance of raising the minimum wage to poverty level is as likely as a family of four moving from homelessness to a cheap apartment.
The minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour; that’s about $900 a month. If you spend a third of that on shelter you are left with $600 a month to feed a family of four. That works out to about $1.67 per meal per person. And that leaves no money for clothing, school supplies, medicine or birthday cakes. Compare that $1.67 with the $73 dollars a person per meal the average Congressman can spend. But then Congressmen eat for free when they’re working, so it’s not really a fair comparison.
I use the Congress because that is the body that refuses to increase the minimum wage to the poverty level, an increase to nearly $8.50 an hour. And these are “good times!” Imagine what a depression would do to the living conditions of those living at the edge. It would make a lot of us look like the Braddock family, shivering in the dark. But I digress.
Ron Howard is a great storyteller. Whether the story is about astronauts (Apollo 13) or firemen (Backdraft) or genius (A Beautiful Mind) or boxers, his empathy for others is transferred to the screen and magically to us. Where Scorsese (another first-rate storyteller) distances us from his subjects – who could empathize with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) or Sam Rothstein (DeNiro in Casino) or Vallon or Cutting (Dicaprio and Day-Lewis from Gangs of New York) – Howard brings his characters to us and we welcome them. Scorsese is no less watchable than Howard but he is less moving.
As awful a person as Russell Crowe appears to be, he is a profoundly gifted actor. Although Renee Zellwegger, apart from the scene referenced above, does not appear terribly challenged by this role, she is still great fun to watch. Paul Giamatti seems a little out of place but that may be due to the power of his role in Sideways. Jethro’s dad (Max Baer) can’t have been that bad, but it makes for good cinema.
Maybe that’s a flaw with Ron Howard’s films, they make too good cinema. Or maybe I’m just a sap. Who knows, or cares? I enjoyed Cinderella Man and you should too.
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