Directed by Ron Howard | Universal Pictures | 147 minutes
Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine
Cinderella Man presents a problem to both Hollywood and its critics. On the one hand it blatantly refutes the notion that “they don’t make films like that any more”. For rather than being a film about power and confrontation, the screen filled with explosions, stunts, and computer graphics, it relates an old-fashioned tale of a good man heroically fighting adversity. It tells the true story of James B. Braddock, the “North Bergen [New Jersey] Bulldog,” once a light heavyweight contender, who, fallen on bad days, against all odds — financial, social, and physical — rises to become heavyweight champion of the world.
Along the way, Braddock, constantly “tested” by the world, demonstrates his true worth. In fact, the film serves as a text on how to live virtues, on how to be a good husband and father, one could even go so far as to say, how to sanctify one’s life. And it’s not corny, maudlin, sentimental, or sappy. It looks authentic, and it features one of the greatest actors of our time, Russell Crowe, as Braddock. He convinces you that you are not watching an actor play Braddock, but instead are witnessing a rugged, honest, humble man whose dogged determined struggles against misfortune become a kind of innocent wisdom. Such a performance is all the more remarkable when one considers that Crowe last played Captain Jack Aubrey, Napoleonic era sea captain, and before that the brilliant schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, and before that an aristocratic Roman gladiator, a role for which he won an Oscar, though that performance has been eclipsed by these succeeding ones.
Furthermore, Renee Zellweger, another Oscar winner, plays his long-suffering wife, not with the saccharine sweetness of June Allyson in The Stratton Story (1949), another sports comeback movie, but as a blue-collar Jersey girl, her accent as authentic as the period dresses she wears. Add to this convincing performances by Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s manager – he sacrifices too – Craig Bierko as the playboy champion Max Baer, and Bruce McGill as the all too worldly fight promoter. The tenement in which Braddock and his family live looks a bit stagey, but the docks where Braddock sometimes can get work as a stevedore and the various fight venues look like the real thing. Altogether, the veteran director Ron Howard deserves our admiration for making an excellent movie. One wonders whether according to Park’s Law, his next venture, The Da Vinci Code, will be a huge improvement on that very flawed novel.
But on the other hand, despite all these admirable qualities, both as a story and as a film, the picture has fizzled at the box office. It got off to a rocky start as number one in a week with no competition, and at this writing, three weeks out, it has fallen to eighth place, far behind Batman Begins and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both of which in a week have doubled the receipts of Cinderella Man. It seems unlikely that in its theatrical release, it will reach the US$88 million it is said to have cost.
So here we are, a beautifully made and acted film, the kind that us moral types have been calling for, claiming that Hollywood has lost touch with its audience, yet the audience we imagine does not show up, but instead rushes to see schlock like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. What went wrong? Should we throw in the towel and go back to reading nineteenth century novels?
Well, for one thing, the box office receipts overall have declined compared to earlier years, though the summer season of intended blockbusters offers hope as will the pre-Oscar autumn season of “quality” films. Nevertheless, all the papers tell us that DVD rentals and sales now surpass theatrical admissions and that films break even or ultimately pay for themselves only during their foreign releases. From this perspective, Cinderella Man suffers from a trend. But other reasons may explain why the audience for The Passion has stayed home for Cinderella Man.
For one thing, it’s a boxing movie, always more appealing to men than to women, and the reality of the fight scenes exhibits a contemporary taste for brutality, as does the dialogue for blasphemy. For another, the story may be too simple, too uncomplicated. No femme fatales tempt Braddock away from his wife, Mae, nor do handsome icemen tempt Mae, whose loyalty and long-suffering could be seen as one-dimensional. On the whole, all three Braddock kids behave themselves, and no shysters, no crooks, no Mr. Potters (It’s a Wonderful Life) block his way. Max Baer is arrogant, but hardly evil. At one point, he even expresses sympathy for Braddock’s plight. And Braddock, being all virtue, has nothing to overcome within himself – his enemies: hard times, poverty, and a broken right hand. So however convincing and sympathetic Crowe’s portrayal, the story lacks the complications of evil. In real life, genuine virtue proves to be surprising and interesting; in drama it seldom does, this film being an exception to that rule.
The backers of the film must have seen it as an opportunity to create a human Seabiscuit, an edifying sporting story that supposedly lifted the entire country out of the Great Depression and gave hope to the little guy, sports and entertainment, to Hollywood, almost always being of greater value than political programs like the New Deal. As if to emphasize this point, the film juxtaposes Braddock to a stevedore pal who develops a radical perspective on things, turns to drink, abandons his family, and dies as a result of a demonstration or police action at the Hooverville (the popular name for encampments of the homeless) in Central Park. No doubt we can admire Braddock for not becoming radicalized, for not blaming the “system” for all his troubles. He survives by using what is at hand – work, relief, and even, in the most poignant scene in the film, begging, hat in hand, at the promoters’ office. Such pathos works; one is moved by Braddock’s plight and cheers for him through every vivid, powerful fight scene, through every setback and every advance. Nevertheless, a richer political context might have improved the film, or a more complex racial one, Braddock being Irish, of which much is made, Baer being a Jew, of which nothing is mentioned.
In any case, Hollywood went for a simple story; more might have proven less. Ultimately, Cinderella Man will meet with its due rewards. It will be nominated for Oscars; it will find its audience and at least break even; and it will take its place with The Champ (1931), Body and Soul (1947) Champion (1949), The Set-Up (1949), and Raging Bull (1980) as a prize fighting classic, which come to think of it, is a genre with a high percentage of winners.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of Hollywood: An Epic Production, a highly praised history of American cinema in verse.