Film — Cinderella Man (PG-13)

 

by Amy Diaz        adiaz@hippopress.com

 

Russell Crowe gives us another scrappy underdog while Renee Zellweger gives us another supporting character with a heart of gold in Cinderella Man, the Seabiscuit/Gladiator of the summer.

Cinderella Man is a good, old-fashioned humbug of a movie. Like the veracity of one of Barnum and Bailey’s “genuine mermaids,” I don’t actually believe for a second that Cinderella Man is a good movie. But, heck, they sewed the fishtail of sentimentality on the monkey’s head of historical re-creation just well enough that I’m willing to squint and pretend I believe.

Not that Cinderella Man is a bad movie — you’ve got your handsome actor doing a fine job, you’ve got your interesting historical context, you’ve got your comeback story. I suppose if I’m not willing to completely give into Cinderella Man and cover it with the big sloppy kisses it so clearly wants, it’s because I feel a little jerked around. Oh, really, you’re going to use big-eyed, rosy-cheeked children to try to make me cry? Wow, how difficult and original. What’s next, pulling a rabbit out of a cage full of rabbits? Shooting fish that have been mounted and stuffed and arranged for the sake of sarcastic symbolism in a barrel? My, how taxing.

Jim Braddock (Crowe) is, of course, a man all about heart and simple decency and family values and other shining, noble things that would make him an excellent candidate for the U.S. Senate if this were a Frank Capra movie and Jimmy Stewart weren’t available. Braddock is introduced to us in the late ’20s when the punches were flowing and the living was easy. We see him and his wife Mae (Zellweger) have a private, post-bout flirt on the porch of their very comfortable middle-class home in New Jersey. These are content Americans — a family that is living the life in the promised land. The picture quickly fades into the early 1930s when the house and the trappings of middle-class comfort are gone and the Braddocks are living in sepia-toned squalor in the basement of a tenement building. They are poor but still happy-ish as Jim is able to fight some (not well but just enough to keep the electricity on) and the kids aren’t in immediate danger of being sent off to relatives who are in better circumstances. But Jim’s absolute suckitude in the ring, along with some injuries to his hand, make it impossible for him to continue fighting. He’s decommissioned, seldom able to work at the local docks and perpetually two months behind on the payment of every bill. The movie gleefully degrades the Braddocks to the lowest levels allowable by decency (no Zellweger hooking to buy milk; no Crowe serving as muscle for the local mob), even having Braddock go to Madison Square Garden where he begs, hat in hand, for cash from boxing officials and managers. He sees his old manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) there as well. Gould, nearly as poor as Jim but better at keeping up appearances, later comes to Braddock and offers him the inevitable — one last fight. The purpose of the fight is to serve as Braddock’s swan song, his complete defeat. But, much to Braddock’s surprise, he wins. Gould is shocked, gets Braddock another fight and then watches with delight as his fighter wins again.

With the renewed vigor that comes from watching your darling moppets languish in Dickensian conditions, Braddock fights his way back to the top of the game and to a showdown with Max Baer (Craig Bierko).

In this corner, we have brutal fight scenes shot with intelligence and attention to detail such that even a novice to the sport can really understand the strategy behind each blow. And in this corner, weighing in at 900-pounds of pure, five-hanky-weepiness crammed into a 200-pound bag, is the silliest pack of emotional crutches and exploitative nonsense ever shown on screen.

What’s far more surprising about Cinderella Man than Braddock’s comeback and victory is the ultimate superiority of the ring footage to the everything-else footage and the fact that the ring footage is good enough to save the movie from itself. Cinderella Man is enjoyable and, mostly, keeps your interest even when it requires of the viewer a great deal of mental brawn to keep reason and reason’s inevitable arched-eyebrow of give-me-a-break from the squishier parts of the plot. It’s a movie that can be heaped with snarky damnation and still glows under the spotlight of even the faintest praise.

KO? No, but the movie does win by unanimous decision.

 
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