Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Old Man from Hooverville: Cinderella Man (2005)

Cinderella Man had some ominous press. Critics described the film as “schmaltz” and a “tear-jerker.” The movie’s ads claim that “When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet,” which leaves us with little room to do anything but cheer in advance. The film’s trailer emphasized how depression-era people found Crowe’s character James J. Braddock an “inspiration.” With all this kind of ersatz clichéd Rocky triumph-of-the-human-spirit hoopla, how could the film be any good?

Oddly, I liked Cinderella Man mostly because of its acting, but also because there’s enough Depression-era desperation to make the melodrama seem earned. The story begins with James J. Braddock doing quite well as a middling-level boxer knocking out guys in Madison Square Garden in the late 1920s. He returns home to his flapper bride Mae played by Renee Zellweger with bobbed brunette hair and a little high Bronx voice that strikingly reminded me of Jennifer Tilly. Mae refuses to go see her husband fight because she suffers each blow as much as he does, but they kiss and canoodle and go hop into bed. Suddenly, as the camera pans to the left across their bureau, the action shifts to several years into the future, after the crash, and one finds that they had to sell the frame for a family picture and their new apartment doesn’t even have wallpaper. By now, Jim has to fight with a broken hand or else the electricity and gas gets turned off in the New Jersey winter, and Mae has to water down what’s left of their milk for their three cold and increasingly sickly children. Director Ron Howard and writer Cliff Hollingsworth just plunge us into the depression without transition or explanation. In his bewilderment over his sudden change in fortune (he had all of his money invested in stocks), Jim tries to maintain his dignity. When his son steals a salami from the local butcher, Jim obliges the son to return it and apologize, and he promises to his son to never send him away to more prosperous relatives. With a strong hint of the old classic On the Waterfront, we see several bleak blue-filtered scenes of men squeezing themselves up against the fence of the dockyards as the foreman can only pick seven for work that day, and soon enough, injured and hungry, Jim loses his license to box.

Now, this may sound like sentimental claptrap, but somehow Russell Crowe’s surefooted relaxed acting with the help of the excellent support of Paul Giametti as his roly-poly manager and agent Joe Gould, the film works. While the boxing profession is never glorified, Braddock finds that he prefers fighting someone in a ring to taking on a perverse fate that deprives him of the ability to earn a wage. After some time has passed, Joe Gould lucks onto one last fight for Jim because no one else would take on a fighter without time to train. On an empty stomach, Jim abruptly gulps down some hash in the dressing room and comes up with a brand new one-two punch that freakishly defeats his opponent, which ultimately sets him up to fight his way back into prominence. Given his recent poverty, the press picks up on his story, the unemployed find themselves rooting for their man, and Jim further cements his mythical status by returning to the government the money he claimed on welfare. Naturally, Mae is torn between pride for her husband and concern for his health as he moves toward a fight with heavy-weight champion Max Baer (hulking Tim Curry lookalike Craig Bierko) who has already killed two men by knocking their brains loose in the ring.

Does the movie pull on the heart-strings by shamelessly cutting back to Zellweger’s concerned face and the cute kids during boxing scenes? Yes. Does the film include the obligatory Rocky training montage? Yes. Does director Ron Howard emphasize every injury even to the point of including x-ray footage of ribs cracking and Crowe grimacing? Yes, again. Is there a fairy-tale aspect to the whole thing? Is there an obligatory Irish priest? Of course. Yet, thanks to its sustained tensions, Cinderella Man remains a contender amongst boxing movies.

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