2005Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti
wise man—well, Jack Handey—once said, “To me, boxing is like ballet, except there’s no music, no choreography, and the dancers hit each other.” I doubt this quote has anything to do with anything, but let me see if I can at pull a metaphor out of it.
Good boxing movies, and there are a ton of ‘em, really aren’t about boxing. They’re about flawed, complicated people who battle personal demons in everyday life and exorcise them inside the ring, channeling external torment into purely physical alternate identities, in service of turning their adversaries into pieces of hamburger. So in some ways, boxing, at least as presented in film, is like a human ballet, at least in the sense that it serves as a dramatic outlet for conflict resolution that doesn’t exist in normal life. Or something. How biting off an opponent’s ear relates to this, I have no idea.
As part of its extensive cinematic tradition, Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man is a straightforward, serviceable effort that affirms the talents of everyone involved and, now that it’s released and soon to be forgotten among larger summer blockbusters, will allow Howard to start hyping the balls out of The Da Vinci Code, due sometime next year.
The giddy innocence of the truly punch-drunk...
Meanwhile, Cinderella Man’s title tells you everything you need to know about the film, a paint-by-the-numbers, old fashioned, triumph-over-adversity sports tale that hits the appropriate emotional buttons with exactly the right amount of suspense and pathos.
It tells the true riches-to-rags-to-riches-again story of Jim Braddock, who, before the onset of the Great Depression, was an up-and-coming boxer. Played here by Russell Crowe, Braddock fights well and provides a comfortable life for his family. After the stock market crash, he succumbs to injury and other hardships dictated by the economy, squeaking out a threadbare existence as a dock worker while his family nearly starves.
Occasionally, he is recognized as a once-great boxer, which is the last thing you want to happen while shoving hooks into bags of grain on a loading dock, trying to work with a badly damaged right hand. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, I suppose. An especially poignant scene finds Braddock at a club frequented by some of his well-to-do former boxing associates, begging for money to get his electricity turned back on. He encounters his former manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, in another role he hits out of the park), who reconnects with Jim and offers him a one-time fight against an opponent he has no hope of defeating.
"Hey, if you want to go off and marry some country singer, be my guest..."
Sports-film logic dictates everything that happens next: he beats his opponent and engineers an unlikely comeback. He speaks humbly in press conferences, reassures his steadfast yet worrisome wife (Renee Zellweger), earns a David-and-Goliath title shot, etc. etc. The story would be unbelievably cornball were it not true, which begs the question of why it took so long for Hollywood to come slobbering after it, because, to an extent, most good boxing movies have this same basic narrative arc. Same could be said of the triumphantly adequate Miracle, which didn’t find its way to the screen until last year. But we totally know The Mighty Ducks was based on that story.
But whatever. Cinderella Man is here. It’s good, albeit far too long and a little too Seabiscuit-y (with all those wonderful sports stories going on, it’s a wonder what people in the 1930s were so darn depressed about). Released in the shadow of the superior Million Dollar Baby, this film is unlikely to be remembered come awards season, if that influences your decision to go or not go. Me, I prefer the ballet.