Cinderella Man (review)

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Acting Out of the Box

They talk about fighters who have “heart,” and here’s the real deal: Jim Braddock, the “bulldog of Bergen,” the underdog-champion boxer who saved the nation’s soul — and his family from starvation and separation — during the miserable depths of the Great Depression. Man, that sounds corny, and it is corny. But there’s an undeniable power to Cinderella Man, and it’s down to the intense and gripping performances of Russell Crowe (as the boxer, of course), and Paul Giamatti (as his trainer and manager), both of whom, as far as I’m concerned, can do no wrong, and this flick just confirms that. If they can take what is inherently melodramatic tripe and turn into something so magnificent — if magnificently corny — that you aren’t even embarrassed to admit it brought you to tears, then they are my new heroes.

Okay, they were already my heroes. Now I love them even more. What they do is what makes going to the movies such an unwavering and abiding pleasure for me.
Director Ron Howard goes off the deep melodramatic end as often as he finds genuine heart in the stories he’s telling, frequently in the same movie, and that’s the case here, too. For every moment where I thought, Wow — like how Howard visually represents the shock of pain as a white haze across Braddock’s POV as the boxer’s hand breaks in the ring — there’s another one that made roll my eyes… like the flashes on Braddock’s adorable moppet children and supportive but fearful wife (Renée Zellweger: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Shark Tale) as he fights, just so there’s no possibility that we miss the entire point of the film, one that is being conveyed perfectly perfectly in a dozen other ways.

And Howard’s trickery, designed to tug your heartstrings, is completely unnecessary, because Russell Crowe (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Proof of Life) is, no hyperbole intended, a genius. He’s so in the moment for every moment of the film that you cannot help but empathize with his Braddock… not in a phony movie way where you root for the hero because he’s the guy the movie is designed to get you to cheer on, but in a way that rivets you there in the moment with him. It’s too simplistic to say that Crowe merely makes us appreciate or understand that his Braddock is a proud man who is devastated when he is reduced to begging from the very boxing bigwigs who ran him out of the sport (this is before the miraculous comeback for which he is so celebrated) in order to keep a promise he made to his eldest son to keep the family together at a time when desperate parents were farming their kids out to more prosperous — or at least less destitute — relatives when simply feeding them got to be impossible. Crowe inhabits this quiet, fierce scene, barely saying a word, braving the disdain and the reproach of these rich and comfortable men, with just the hunch of his shoulders and the slightest rimming of his eyes with tears you know are impossible for him to endure… and you more than sympathize with him. Crowe forces us to become Braddock. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call Crowe the finest film actor of his (and my) generation — he knows that the intimacy of film demands small gestures and internalized emotion, and he delivers to us a moviegoing experience that cannot help but be powerful.

I don’t want to be too hard on Howard (The Missing, A Beautiful Mind) — this is easily his best film since Apollo 13, ten years ago — and he does avoid some obvious traps, like what had to be an almost irresistible urge to play up the difference in size between Crowe and Craig Bierko (Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, The Thirteenth Floor), as his boxing opponent Max Baer, the brutal, murderous fighter he goes up against late in his career — Crowe is hardly a little guy, but he is dwarfed by the massive Bierko… and Howard lets the chance to make a big deal out of that pass by, lets us notice the frightening dichotomy for ourselves. And if he’s created a masterpiece of studio filmmaking here — and I think he has — he deserves to be recognized even if it’s mostly because he knew to stand aside and let Crowe and Giamatti do their thing.

Cuz Crowe has always been an actor who really thrives when he has someone equally as talented to bounce off, and he has that here in Giamatti (Robots, Sideways), as his manager and trainer, Joe Gould (who was a minor celebrity in his own right during the era). On his own, Giamatti brings his usual determination fueled by desperation — the scene in which he has to convince boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston (the indispensable Bruce McGill: Collateral, Runaway Jury) to give Braddock his comeback chance is capped by a moment in which Giamatti imbues the apparently confident and secure Gould with all of Braddock’s anxiety, and more: he tells us with nary a word that Gould needs the bout as much as Braddock does.

But it’s when Giamatti and Crowe come together that Cinderella Man achieves its apex, becomes a story about all different kinds of love and devotion… and these two extraordinary actors make us feel, in a way that seems effortless on their part and probably required a singularly difficult creative effort, that we should all hope to aspire to the brand of loyalty they share, and share with the others around them.

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