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Rated 3.04 stars
by 2864 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Fairy Tale Machine
by Jeffrey Chen

Late in Cinderella Man, our real-life Depression-era hero James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) prepares for his legendary fight against Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Baer is an imposing figure, built muscular and lean, tall and even quite handsome. As he stands, he's a natural challenge for the older Braddock, whose sudden comeback ascension after years without boxing was seen as incredibly unlikely. So it's not without a little fascination for the inherent power of Hollywood's storytelling machine that one observes the further villainization of Baer.

Historically, Baer did cause the death of two boxers, one directly and one indirectly. According to some stories, he felt guilty about the demise he delivered after a knockout blow -- it may have even caused him to pull his punches in subsequent fights, when he went on a temporary career downslide. In Cinderella Man, however, the boxer is portrayed as willfully evil, even boastful of his status as a manslaughterer. Seeing Braddock's wife Mae (Renée Zellweger), Baer sneers, "She's too young to be a widow."

Why this was done is obvious -- in order for Cinderella Man to reach its crowdpleasing heights, it must create a despicable villain worth defeating. It's at once marvelously and disturbingly effective. The climactic match between Braddock and Baer is the culmination of an emotional buildup nearly as convincing as the one in director Ron Howard's 1995 heartwarming slice of Americana, Apollo 13. Howard is by now a total expert at this, and the rhythms are so familiar it threatens to numb the mind. One at once admires the skill behind it while feeling guilty about falling for it yet again.

Personally, I'd honestly feel less guilty about it if Howard worked with a classier script. His assured, if not adventurous, touch is marred by a trite, shameless screenplay, courtesy of Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Cinderella Man is not just an audience-manipulator, it's a blatant one. It unabashedly uses 1-to-1 reference points for its emotional beats, e.g., the promise that Braddock makes to his son that he would never send him away only to find out later that he got sent away when he wasn't looking. See also, Mae's attendance at a friend's funeral which directly causes her to fret more maniacally over her husband's impending match with a boxing killer, thus playing out one of my least favorite story devices -- the conflict created by the woman not wanting the man to do his job because she's afraid he'll die.

And then there's that need to paint a dastardly villain. It's a stroke as lamentable as it is bold. It's a pity that Howard and his strengths -- particularly that of being able to surround himself with amazing acting talent (and in this movie, Crowe and Paul Giamatti are stellar and worth the price of admission by themselves) -- must also be allied with this need to yank his audiences around by the hand and point. Actual people become reduced to character standards for the sake of pulling viewers along for an emotional spin (the stand-by-your-man wife, the troubled friend, the evil bad guy). And, when teamed with Goldsman in particular, it seems no one is safe from revision for that sake. Remember, in the Goldsman-penned A Beautiful Mind, the major complaint about the movie was how its protagonist John Nash was whitewashed. Since this creative-license-stretching tactic won the duo Oscars, it's no surprise that they're following the rule, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

But the subject of Nash brings the light back to the point of the moviemaking, the classic Hollywood touch of manipulating the audience to the highest of heights. Because Nash's treatment is nowhere near as egregious as Baer's treatment, A Beautiful Mind succeeds with its emotional beats and standard characterizations -- the Hollywood machine works well when there's not as much conspicuous potential offense. And yet, even with more obstacles to overcome in Cinderella Man, Howard is able to steer the fairy tale machine to a desirable destination. Appropriately, he might be seen as having a fairy godmother's powers, able to turn old, mundane ingredients into something shiny enough to captivate your attention for a few hours in the night. So it's to his credit that, even after I considered how possibly unfair the movie was to Baer (and his family, for that matter), even after wading through its play-it-safe script, I still can't help appreciating the confidence with which he conducts the rousing last act. And feeling guilty about falling for it, yet again.

(Released by Universal and rated "PG-13" for intense boxing violence and some language.)

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