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"A humbling and stirring account of an upstanding American hero."
"(Crowe) glistens with goodness in the face of grief."
"A fine boxing movie with terrific characters and a positive spirit."
Cinderella Man  

Cast

Jim Braddock: Russell Crowe
Mae Braddock: Renee Zellweger
Joe Gould: Paul Giamatti
Max Baer: Craig Bierko
Mike Wilson: Paddy Considine
Jimmy Johnston: Bruce McGill
Joe Jeanette: Ron Canada
Jay Braddock: Connor Price INTERVIEW
Baer's Cornerman: Nick Alachiotis
Review June 2005

In the middle of the Great Depression, one man fought his way out, carrying the entire nation with him. And his name was James J. Braddock, a family man and impoverished prize-fighter whose fairytale journey to the top of the boxing world is well documented in Ron Howard's historical drama, "Cinderella Man." The story is about a common man who becomes an unlikely hero in the most unlikely of times by upholding the simple and honest values he so firmly believes in. And unlike so many boxing films of yore, this one focuses on the man rather than the boxer. Driven by love and honor, courage and fortitude, Braddock achieves the impossible, defeating legions of foes on his way to the heavyweight championship of the world. And his unexpected rise earns him the nickname, Cinderella Man. The film itself is replete with phenomenal performances, led of course by Russell Crowe, and it contains some of the most realistic, thrilling boxing sequences ever captured on film. And despite overemotional tendencies, "Cinderella Man" remains a humbling and stirring account of an upstanding American hero.

The story begins on the evening of July 18th, 1929. In the middle of the light heavyweight championship against Tommy Loughran, Jim Braddock suffers a severe hand injury and ends up losing a 15 round decision. But more importantly, his lackluster effort in spite of injury gets him banned from the boxing world. Then, less than two months after the Loughran bout, the stock market crashes. And the nation goes tumbling into the financial disaster known as the Great Depression. Like many other Americans, Braddock and his family lose everything. Unable to resume his boxing career, Braddock winds up working at the docks in Hoboken for minimal wages to support his wife, Mae, and their three children. He even swallows his pride, filing for government assistance. But sadly, it just wasn't enough. Falling behind in rent and utilities, the Braddocks were unable to pay for the simple necessities like food, milk, and warmth. With nowhere else to turn, Braddock makes a final plea to his former trainer and manager, Joe Gould, and the rest of the boxing federation for charity.

As luck would have it, a last minute cancellation helps Gould scrounge up a fight. But it is by no means a picnic, facing John "Corn" Griffin at Madison Square Garden. Deemed too old, injury prone, and out of fighting shape, Braddock is given no chance. Yet, to everyone's surprise, his heart and determination prove insurmountable as Griffin succumbs to a third round knockout. In the aftermath, Braddock quietly becomes the hero of a nation in need of courage and perseverance. And as word of his victory spreads, Braddock earns another fight against John Henry Lewis. Once more, he proves his critics wrong with a tenth round victory. And after another incredible 15 round decision against Art Lasky, Braddock becomes next in line for the heavyweight championship. The opponent? Max Baer, one of the hardest hitters of all time, notorious for killing two men in the ring. With the hopes and dreams of a nation on his shoulders, Braddock enters Madison Square Garden for the fight of his life. It's a fight unlike any other, one that will test his will to survive, one that will bring his family out of poverty, and one that will complete his Cinderella story.

After years of hardship and endless determination, Jim Braddock claimed the Heavyweight Champion of the World title by defeating Max Baer on June 13, 1935. It was an upset of upsets, earning him the nickname, "Cinderella Man," and it was a title that he would hold onto for the next two years until facing off against "The Brown Bomber," Joe Louis, who knocked him out in the 8th round. In the years following, Braddock continued to fight in exhibition matches. But on January 21, 1938, roughly three years after defeating Max Baer, Jim Braddock hung up his gloves and retired from boxing all together. In his retirement years, he would work as a surplus supplier for marine equipment. And with the money he earned from the Louis fight, he and his wife Mae were able to raise their three children in a house they bought in North Bergen. After a simple and fulfilling life, on November 29th 1974, the Bulldog of Bergen quietly passed away in his sleep. As a beacon of hope for a nation in distress, Braddock was simply a family man trying to do the right thing. Although his numbers were quite impressive (eighty-five fights and fifty-one victories), it was his actions outside of the ring that spoke volumes. Together, his life and career have earned him the recognition bestowed by the Ring Boxing, Hudson County, and International Boxing Hall of Fames.

As an homage to Braddock, "Cinderella Man" is a knockout. Of striking significance is the performance and transformation of Russell Crowe. In fact, in the first scene, he is almost unrecognizable. For, there is no scruffy beard or blond ponytail. Fighting against Tommy Loughran, Crowe's Braddock is thin and pale faced, tall, and lanky. And he nails Braddock's fighting stance, the mannerisms, and speech pattern. But those are just the things on the surface. Like many of his previous roles from Captain Jack Aubrey to John Nash, Crowe has a fascination with inner turmoil. And James J. Braddock is no different. Here is a character, who in spite of everything that life has dealt him, still manages to keep the faith. He loses his ability to fight, he loses his shirt in the stock market crash, he goes on welfare, and he still manages to keep his wits about him, to remain hopeful. Portraying such strength and courage is not easy, but Crowe makes it look so. In fact, it's the complete immersion in a role that makes Russell one of the most celebrated actors of this generation. For in "Cinderella Man," in what could easily be considered a clich?d role, Crowe creates distance and glistens with goodness in the face of grief.

While Crowe is undoubtedly the focal point of the film, it's hard to ignore the number of fantastic supporting roles prevalent in "Cinderella Man." On a tear most recently is Paul Giamatti, who delivers another fine performance in line with "American Splendor" and "Sideways." Portraying Joe Gould, Braddock's close friend and trainer, Giamatti captures the perfect balance between comedy and drama, encouragement and despair. On the exterior, he is suave and well dressed, confident, and quick-witted. But beneath the suit, he's just as distressed, just as moved, and just as sentimental. Additionally, there's Paddy Considine as Braddock's troubled friend Mike Wilson, Craig Bierko as the chaotic antagonist Max Baer, and Bruce McGill as the powerful and money driven promoter, Jimmy Johnston. Even Braddock's children have their moments, as when the oldest son, Jay, acts in desperation only to be gently forgiven by his father. Sadly, the only performance that did not stand out was that of Renee Zellweger, whose character, Mae, seems too traditional and vanilla, in the same vain as a loyal and loving spouse.

Although the boxing sequences are not the heart and soul of the film, there is a crispness and realism with which they are delivered. Under the helm of cinematographer Salvatore Totino ("Any Given Sunday," "The Missing") and the choreography of Nick Powell, each of the scenes is relayed with a careful eye and ear for the sights and sounds in the ring. The proximity of the fighting is up close and personal, the punches are explosive and reverberating, and the announcer's play-by-play is perfectly timed, emphasizing the highs and lows of the match. Additionally, editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill do a fantastic job of keeping audiences close to the action without losing a sense for the bigger picture. It's a stellar feat, one made more dramatic by the emphasis on emotion and necessity. Much like "Million Dollar Baby" in which Maggie fights because boxing is all she's got, "Cinderella Man" features a boxer at the end of his ropes, who must fight to put milk on the table. The simplicity of this image alone carries well into the ring, with every hook and jab, as Braddock fights for his family and his own life.

Directed by Ron Howard and adapted to the screen by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, "Cinderella Man" is straight forward in purpose. Alternating between sentiment and surefire boxing and even more schmaltz, the film builds an emotional core. But is it possible to have too much endearment? If it were, "Cinderella Man" would be guilty as Howard repeatedly tugs at heartstrings to induce melodrama. Much like "A Beautiful Mind" in which Goldsman and Howard altered the truth or the facts to present their own John Nash story, "Cinderella Man" does much of the same. Max Baer was never the cold-blooded killer he was made out to be in the film. Instead, he was so overwhelmed by the events in the ring that he quit boxing for months on end and later became hesitant in finishing off his opponents, including Braddock, because he was afraid of hurting them. Then there's the character of Mike Wilson, who never really existed. Wilson is a metaphorical character, meant to represent American culture during the Great Depression. These characters are overdramatic, altered or added, simply to put Jim Braddock in a better light. And given the true nature of the story, it's really unnecessary.

That said, "Cinderella Man" is a fine boxing movie with terrific characters and a positive spirit. In a world where doing the right thing is often taken for granted or ignored, the story of Jim Braddock could easily be overlooked. It's a story of triumph over tragedy, about a genuine and honest man willing to do whatever it takes for the love of his family. And it's something you will never see today, where sports and athletes are driven exclusively by greed and even more greed. The only drawback with the film is that Howard goes a little overboard in manipulating its story and characters to get to the expected emotional climax. Doing so brings it closer to clich? and further from reality. A reality that needs no embellishment, no fancy montages, and no inspirational music. For, unlike the fairy tales and fictional boxers of filmdom, Braddock's story is legendary.



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