You Gotta Have Heart
Moviegoers love to cheer for the underdog. No wonder Hollywood makes so many films based on this popular theme. The success of motion pictures like Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Seabiscuit can be attributed in large part to their emphasis on overcoming almost impossible odds in order to achieve a goal. Cinderella Man, director Ron Howard’s biopic about Depression Era boxer James Braddock, wrings every bit of emotion out of this tried-and-true storyline. Fortunately, it does so with considerable style and heart.
Russell Crowe’s superb portrayal of Braddock should remove any lingering doubts about his acting ability. Transforming himself into a man trying to keep his family together during the depths of the Depression, Crowe reminds me of the real Braddock I’ve seen in newsreel clips -- even though he doesn’t look a bit like the actual man. How can that be? It’s probably because of the attitude Crowe projects and the gentle but determined look in his eyes. Adding to the realism of his performance, Crowe adopts a convincing New Jersey accent -- one that’s very easy on the ear.
I particularly admire the sensitivity of Crowe’s performance in scenes depicting Braddock’s tender relationship with his children. A father’s love shows in this Oscar-winning (for Gladiator) actor’s face while playing at boxing with his little daughter and when promising his young son he’ll never send him away, no matter how bad things get. These are truly moving film moments. In contrast, Crowe displays all the machismo needed in the well-filmed fight sequences.
As with Raging Bull, my favorite boxing movie, the prize fights in Cinderella Man had me bobbing and weaving in my theater seat as if I were right there in the ring with the pugilists. My heart pounded more rapidly with every punch that landed on our hero’s bruised face or body. And, like others in the audience at the screening I attended, I applauded each Braddock win after his surprising comeback. It takes more than good acting to get this result -- no doubt Howard’s crowd-pleasing direction, Salvatore Totino’s compelling cinematography, impressive editing by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, and a first-rate screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman helped to create this riveting film experience.
Why did Braddock, a man who lost everything in the Great Depression, a boxer who quit the game because of injuries and other bad luck, decide to fight again? Certainly not because of his wife Mae (played with furrowed intensity by Renée Zellweger); she can’t even bring herself to attend his boxing matches. And not out of pride or a search for glory. Braddock agrees to fight again because the meager jobs he can find don’t pay enough to feed his children or keep them warm. When Braddock wins his first comeback fight --arranged for him by his fast-talking former manager (Paul Giamatti in a terrific supporting turn) -- the entire downtrodden nation begins to identify with him, and writer Damon Runyon christens Braddock the Cinderella Man.
The film ends with an extremely bloody battle between Braddock and heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, hunky and menacing in this brief role), whose fists had already killed two opponents. Granted, this bout goes on a bit too long and wore me out, but I’m not complaining. Nor do I still feel disappointed about how long the film takes to get to its exciting parts. Those early dark and gritty Depression sequences give the movie its sense of place and time, and they serve as the doorway to the movie’s great heart.
(Released by Universal and rated “PG-13” for intense boxing violence and some language. Reviewed after the Sneak Preview on May 29, 2005.)