I saw the trailer for Cinderella Man a couple of weeks ago when I watched Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
It seemed straightforward enough. The violin strains began, and I learned about a Depression-era boxer, James Braddock, a scrupulously good man who was down on his luck. Slow motion fighting sequences began to play, married up with an inspiring music score, followed by clips of the villainous opponents the hero must overcome. I saw grim depictions of the hardscrabble poverty “Jimmy” endured, and yet, against all odds, the teasing suggestion that he managed to climb high enough out of the gutter to take on the champ for all the marbles. Cool, I thought. (warning - some spoilers to follow.)
What can I say, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. I decided on the spot to go see it when it came out, even when I had the gut feeling that I basically saw the same movie last year when it was called, “Seabiscuit.” Identical themes, sentiment, set pieces, camerawork, and structure were used in that film for the same effect. Or even better, I could pop in my Rocky DVD and see the original underdog boxing movie without laying out my ten bucks. But hey, that’s why formulas are used; because they work. It doesn’t have to be complicated for me to enjoy a movie. Cinderella Man (yeah, I didn’t like the title much either – I wondered why they used that name, until I read about the real James Braddock, and found out they called him that in the papers back in the day. They should have called it something like, “Doctor Knockout” or "White Guy Kicks Ass", but anyway) isn’t the most original movie I ever saw, but to me the experience was money well spent.
I’ll just say right now, Russell Crowe is the best leading man in Hollywood today. Nobody else comes close – no contest. His range is great in every significant gee-whiz movie he’s ever made – A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, L.A. Confidential, Gladiator. He can add Cinderella Man to his list. He was completely believable as a punched-out boxer from 1935 New Jersey; a movie like this starring Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt would leave you thinking, “hey, there’s Tom Cruise!” all the time, but not Crowe. You forget who you’re watching, and that’s what a great actor is all about. I like also how most of his roles are the “man’s man” kind of role. You get the feeling when you watch him that Crowe takes no shit from anybody in real life, something I like and which of course, only adds to the image he presents onscreen. I read before I watched the movie that the fighting sequences he shot for the film were of him and the boxers actually fighting each other, teeing off with full-contact punches to get enough good footage for Ron Howard to use. It only makes me respect Crowe’s work even more.Russell Crowe: a real man
The whole cast was great, in fact. Paul Giamatti plays the part of Jimmy’s aw-shucks manager, a guy trying hard to present the image of success, but who in fact lays everything in his life on the line to support Jim’s title hopes. He takes the role of “supporting actor” literally, propping up Jimmy with motivational pep-talks, fight tips, hydro money, and yelling the occasional, “you son of a bitch!” anytime Jimmy does something spectacular.
Renée Zellweger capably played Jimmy’s wet-blanket wife. For two hours, she actively tried to manipulate Jimmy and hold him back from the redemption in the ring he sorely needed, both for himself and for his impoverished family. Hello – we’re starving? Why is it that women in every sports movie seem to exist only to discourage/distract/corrupt the hero? I swear, either they actually say things out loud to put him down (like Zellweger’s character did), or else they subtly mess up his head with too much sex in order to derail his ambitions (like in The Natural). Think about it, seriously. Rocky. The Rookie. Slap Shot. Major League. Any sports movie, the athlete should have stayed away from the woman like the plague. I dare you to name a sports movie where that wasn't the case. So some future advice: anytime you watch a movie that involves sports of any kind, realize that the woman in the picture is actually an enemy, and success will result in spite of her existence, not because of it. They are tokens. Props, if you will. You can’t very well have a movie without a woman in it, after all. [Edit: Now that I think about it, when is the female lead ever an advantage to the male in any Hollywood movie? Unless the movie is a chick flick, and so, most of the cast are women anyway, I just realized that women exist in most movies in order to provide 1.) somebody to save, 2.) somebody to get naked, 3.) somebody to hold back the hero. When is there ever a strong female presence that carries part of the movie? I'm sure there are some, but I can't think of any right now. It's not like I'm against women in movies either, I'm just sayin'
The guy who plays the evil champ, Max Baer (I don’t know his name, and don’t feel like looking him up), was also great, alternately charming and despicable; a joking, clownish killer who swaggered around outside the ring with a half-dozen trampy women in tow. He had style.
And the only time I laughed out loud during the movie happened during this sequence:
(Some guy, knocking on Max’s hotel door) Max. Max!
(The door opens – it’s Max) What!
The Guy: Max, Jim Braddock –
Some Girl, behind Max: Max, whoizzit?
Max: (yelling) Shut up!
I don’t know, it was just the way he yelled at the women. I got a kick out of it. A few people stared at me though, because I was the only guy in the theatre laughing about it. I was hoping he’d give the woman the old whack-with-the-back-of-the-hand treatment, but I was let down.
As the movie ended, your typical “based on a true story” summation notes lit up, nicely underscoring for the audience the total manliness of Braddock: he served “admirably” in World War II (I imagined him charging over a trench, gunning down multiple Nazis with a machine gun in each hand) and with his construction company, built a bridge in the 60’s (I then imagined him strutting around manfully with huge slabs of metal on his back, single-handedly assembling the structure).
I only had two serious complaints about the entire film. Before it started, I was forced to watch seven commercials before the feature presentation got underway. I don’t mind the trailers – but commercials? I didn’t pay ten bucks for that crap. It was eighteen minutes from the official start time that the flick was finally rolling.
My other complaint has to do with the fight sequences – they were shot really tight, so it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. There were times when a guy would land a punch, and I’d think, “cool!” and he’d move his head a bit and I’d see it was actually the bad guy who threw the great haymaker. I found it really tough to figure out who was who, unless Jimmy was fighting a black guy. Then I had no problems.
Anyway, after all that, you don’t need me to summarize the movie in order to figure out whether you’ll like the movie or not. Did you like Rocky? Seabiscuit? Any movie that involved a hopeless underdog who manages to overcome seemingly impossible odds? Don’t forget, it’s a Ron Howard movie. Do you really think he’d leave you swinging in the breeze? You’re in capable hands with him behind the camera.
I say, if you like movies where the hero gets pushed around a bit, but gets the chance to come back and stomp the shit out of all his tormenters, this is the movie for you, with just a touch of schmaltz thrown in to keep the movie firmly in the “Oscar nominee” trolley track. It won’t really surprise you, but that’s kind of the point. You wait the whole movie for the, “oh, yeah
!” moment, and you aren’t left disappointed.