Cinderella Man

Every once in awhile, a director and actor will team up for a series of movies that prove to be either commercially or critically successful. Think John Wayne and John Ford, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese. It appears that Russell Crowe and Ron Howard, after having much success in A Beautiful Mind have gotten together in a similar way.

It’s an odd pairing. Here we have Opie, who we all grew up with and know to be a squeaky clean all American kid. And then there’s Crowe, who’s reputation is that of a touchy brawler from down under. But he’s also the best actor of his generation and Howard is a solid filmmaker who every once in awhile makes a great film.  Maybe it’s only natural that they should team up.

Of course, so far the results haven’t quite hit the mark. Cinderella Man is not one of Howard’s great films, nor for that matter is A Beautiful Mind. But it’s close.

Jim Braddock’s story, which is true, is the stuff of American mythology. Here we have a successful fighter in the 20’s. He’s only got a right hook in his arsenal but that’s all he needs, at least until he fights someone who knows how to evade it. He loses everything in the crash of ’29. All his savings are gone; his taxi concession fails, and now he’s struggling to feed his wife and three kids. But he breaks his hand, which combined with his broken confidence, sends him to palookaville. Eventually, he loses his license and all means of supporting his family, except for rare days when he’s picked to unload ships at the dock. This is where he develops his left jab, since he has to favor his right hand. Finally, he gets a fight, one he’s not supposed to win, but he does. Then he gets another, and within a year he’s in a title bout with Max Baer, who’s killed two people in the ring.

Even though this is all true, it’s pretty schmaltzy stuff. A filmmaker has to be careful not to overdo it. And Howard doesn’t always stay on the right side of that line. The film and Braddock are a little too wholesome for their own good.

First and foremost are the performances. Russell Crowe takes a part that could have gone wrong in so many ways and nails it. James Braddock is a larger than life saintly character that a lesser actor would have made into unitentional parody. To make it more improbable Crowe affects a New Joisy accent that wouldn’t be out of place in a Warner Brothers’ cartoon. It’s a little broad but it works. In Russell Crowe we are watching a great artist at the height of his powers. Enjoy it.

Paul Giamatti, as Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould, turns in another sterling performance. His fast talking hustler contrasts with the more straight forward Braddock. Renee Zellweger is good as Mae, Braddock’s wife.

Other than Crowe, the best things about Cinderella Man are the fight scenes. The camera dances between the two fighters, capturing all the savage action. Members of the audience actually cringed when punches connected. What’s more, into the fight, when Braddock has taken a few punches, the shots from his point of view are shaky and out of focus. These are followed by shots of Braddock blinking his eyes, trying to clear his head. Obviously, I’ve never been in a boxing match, but I’ve got to believe that’s how it is. I wonder how many times somebody’s won just because they had a clearer head at the end.

Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is top notch throughout the movie. He captures the essence of the 30’s brilliantly, without making it look like a 30’s film. The colors are muted with almost a sepia tone. Very impressive. In general Cinderella Man really catches the fear of the depression, when families were just a pink slip away from disaster, and many were already over that line. All these good elements obliterate the predictableness of the story and the blatant manipulation of the script.

Maybe someday, Howard and Crowe will make a great one, something that will stand next to Apollo 13, Parenthood, or L.A. Confidential. It’s possible. Howard has brought out some of Crowe’s best work. He just needs to get the other elements in line.

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