Cinderella Man

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 4, 2005

 

The artistic accomplishments of film directors may be overstated by the hero-worshipping auteur theory, but any man who can shoulder a director's workload and responsibilities deserves a little respect. And if, like Ron Howard, he can deliver quality movies for a quarter of a century after starting out as a child star -- the most warping upbringing imaginable, as the trials of Michael Jackson and Robert Blake attest -- then he merits a lot more.

If Howard weren't so recognizable from "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," he'd almost be the modern equivalent of William Wyler, the epitome of the hardworking but nearly anonymous craftsman director. Wyler earned a record twelve Oscar nominations, yet, due to his lack of a signature style, is now frequently mistaken for the second most-nominated director, Billy Wilder.

The boxing biopic "Cinderella Man" is Howard's best film since "Apollo 13." It's an improvement over his first collaboration with the formidable star Russell Crowe (of "Master and Commander") and the hack screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (of the universally despised "Batman and Robin"). In their Best Picture-winning "A Beautiful Mind," the brutishly masculine Crowe almost overcame being miscast as the youthful mathematical prodigy John Nash. Goldsman moved Nobel Laureate's mental breakdown from 1959 to 1953 so he could pretend Nash was driven mad by anti-Communist paranoia during the McCarthy years. The Red Scare-obsessed Academy gave Goldsman an Oscar for his deceptiveness.

Luckily, the true story of pugilist James J. Braddock's comeback is such a perfect vehicle for Howard's family values (he and his wife of 28 years have four children) that not even Goldsman can wreck it.

A popular Irish-American fighter during the prosperous 1920s, Braddock's career collapsed in 1929 as quickly as the economy. To keep food on the table for his wife (played well by Renée Zellweger of "Chicago") and three kids, he soldiered on with a bad hand, losing 18 of his next 33 fights. By 1933, he was out of boxing, an intermittently employed stevedore reduced to sometimes farming out his children to relatives so they wouldn't catch pneumonia in their unheated basement apartment.

In 1934, Braddock's faithful manager (portrayed by Paul Giamatti, a lock for an Oscar nomination after being stiffed over "Sideways" last year) signed him up on only a day's notice to play human punching bag to a heavyweight contender. Despite having gone without food so his kids could eat, Braddock knocked out the big galoot. He then upset two more prominent names. Braddock's purses allowed him to reimburse the government for his family's welfare payments (a gesture Joe Louis later emulated).

Finally, Braddock went off as a 10-1 underdog against the fearsome heavyweight champ Max Baer Sr. "Cinderella Man" unfairly portrays Baer as a Mike Tyson-like brute, when he was a kind-hearted joker hoping to get out of boxing and into show biz. (His son Max Baer Jr. fulfilled his dad's hopes by playing Jethro Bodine on "The Beverly Hillbillies.")

Yet, while Baer's macho preening was novel and amusing in the 1930s, when athletes were still supposed to act like self-effacing Victorian sportsmen, and it was fun when Muhammad Ali turbocharged Baer's act, by now we've all seen where it leads: to the countless jerks infesting big money sports today.

In contrast, when asked why he was risking his life against Baer, who had administered (unintentionally) fatal beatings to two strong men, Braddock replied, "Milk." Braddock came to symbolize the battered but still game fathers who did whatever it took to get their families through the Depression. Fortunately, "Cinderella Man" avoids political sermonizing, unlike former Clinton speechwriter Gary Ross's "Seabiscuit," a dopey allegory in which a thoroughbred represents the New Deal.

That Crowe, a hard-drinking hothead who broke up Meg Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid, isn't anything like the saintly Braddock only adds to the power of his impersonation. We admire the high-testosterone man who could play the cad but instead chooses to be the dad more than the low testosterone fellow without that option.

The other bit of forgivable phoniness is that Howard stages the climactic bout as a thrilling donnybrook, with Braddock valiantly trading right hooks to the jaw with Baer for 15 rounds. In reality, the calculating family man, ahead on points, spent the last three rounds prudently dancing away from the out-of-shape Baer. One ring historian called the actual match "one of the most unexciting title fights of all time."

 

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