Cinderella Man (9/10)

by Tony Medley

This story about James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), heavyweight champ from 1935-37, is Crowe’s movie. Every time I see him I become more and more convinced he’s the best actor of his generation, by far, and maybe any generation. He is given a big assist by Renée Zellweger, who plays his wife, Mae, Paul Giamatti as his manager, Joe Gould, and the guys who play the heavies, Bruce McGill as Madison Square Garden promoter Jimmy Johnston, and Craig Bierko, who is a terrifically hateful Max Baer.

Although burdened by the most maudlin music imaginable, the movie is more than just a biopic of a boxer. In fact, the first hour is a gritty display of what life was like during the Great Depression. Braddock and his wife were the poorest of the poor, trying to scrounge out a life for them and their three children with no money, no job, and no hope. This is so authentic it makes “Grapes of Wrath” (1940) seem like a cartoon.

Mike (Paddy Considine) is the one fictional character in the movie. He’s a composite, a stockbroker who fell far from grace to try to survive in a Hooverville, a shantytown in New York’s Central Park, epitomizing the millions of people who went from prosperity to poverty in the blink of an eye.

The only flight from reality in the film is that the Braddock’s children, Howard (Patrick Lewis), Jay (Connor Price), and Rosemarie (Ariel Walker), don’t age during the two years we follow them. They are the same children in 1935 that they were in 1933. Children change substantially in two years and Director Ron Howard would have been wise to cast older children in the later year.

Angelo Dundee, former trainer of my former neighbor Muhammad Ali, was a technical advisor and may be seen in Braddock’s corner during the fights. According to Giamatti, Dundee was so in to the competition that scenes had to be reshot constantly because Angelo would utter a profanity that was unacceptable in a PG rated film.

Crowe went from a hefty 228 pounds to Braddock’s fighting weight of 178 just by training the way they did in the ‘30s, without the weights everyone does today. One week before filming was scheduled to begin, Crowe dislocated his shoulder, necessitating surgery. Even so, one week out of surgery, he was back in the ring working to strengthen his shoulder back to fighting level. But the injury delayed filming for seven weeks. Crowe was so committed to boxing realism that he suffered several concussions and cracked teeth during the course of the shooting. One of what Director Ron Howard called “happy accidents” occurred during the filming of Braddock’s fight with Art Lasky (Brad Simmons, a current heavyweight boxer). Simmons connected with Crowe and the camera cuts to Giamatti who has a look of pure horror on his face. The look wasn’t acting. Giamatti says, “Everyone could hear the glove connect with Russell’s head and quite honestly I don’t know how he continued with the fight. I fully expected him to go down.” No fool, Howard put both of these scenes into the final cut.

In order to recreate the Madison Square Garden of the 1930s, which was one of the grand sports arenas of the era, Howard went to Toronto and used Maple Leaf Garden, the only 1930s era arena extant, and long since abandoned. It serves as the locale for the Braddock-Baer Championship match of 1935 before 35,000 bloodthirsty fans.

One Oscar this film should be in keen competition for is Art Direction by Production Designer Wynn Thomas. The recreation of the depression world of the ‘30s has been painstakingly done, including the dreary, depressing apartment where Jim and Mae lived.

As anybody who has read my critiques should know by now, I not only despise boxing, I generally hate boxing movies. But I liked this. Even though there is a lot of boxing in it, it’s not a boxing movie, per se. It’s a Hollywood enigma, a film with good moral values, applauding marriage and commitment and personal responsibility. The best part of the film, for me, was when Braddock, who had been on the dole, applying for, and collecting from the Public Relief fund, got his money from the fight with John “Corn” Griffin (Art Binkowski, another current heavyweight boxer), stood in line to pay back all the money he had received from the government. But that’s not all. Braddock is pictured as a loving and caring father, and in total love with his wife. His wife is a real person, dedicated to Jim, but also to her children. She is called upon to make a terribly difficult decision and it becomes a vital point of their relationship. This is a movie that shows a strong marriage and close family.

On the negative side, Howard succumbs to the pressure of his Hollywood predecessors and makes the audio of the fights unrealistically loud. Left jabs sound as if North Korea exploded an atomic bomb. The noises Hollywood creates for fights (and other sports movies as well) have no relationship to what one can actually hear on the field of combat. This type of audio greatly diminishes the film because it is so pervasive. Fortunately, the audio is the only cartoonish part of this movie.

Another criticism is that the brutality of fights is exaggerated. I don’t mind this too much because fights are brutal and it’s good to show them as such. But they aren’t as much of a horror as this movie shows them to be. Someone gets hit in the face by a left jab and Howard portrays it as a life-threatening event. While it is unrealistic, I really don’t mind that the brutality of fights is exaggerated because boxing is an anachronistic remnant of Roman gladiatorial contests and has no place in a civilized society.

Finally, there was one scene that made me gag. Mae is shown scouring a cast iron skillet. Maybe in today’s world of Teflon a homemaker might commit this mortal sin out of ignorance. But not in the ‘30s when every self respecting mom knew that the only way to clean a cast iron skillet is to pour boiling water in it, let it sit for five minutes, dry it thoroughly (and I mean thoroughly!), and then coat it with lard. If you scour it, you might as well trash it.

This is everything a movie should be, interesting, entertaining, educational, and with high moral values, if you can forget about the boxing and the audio enhancements.


June 2, 2005