From Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, and Oscar-winning writer Akiva Goldsman, of “A Beautiful Mind,” comes “Cinderella Man,” another true story of a man who overcame all odds at a time when his country needed him the most, starring Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe and Oscar-winning actress Renee Zellweger.
Some movies, by way of their pedigree alone, arrive at the theaters pre-approved and pre-digested for our higher tastes. Before the first glimpse of period piece stalwart Crowe appears on the screen, it is obvious that “Cinderella Man” has the bullying “stamp of quality.” What director Ron Howard puts in those first frames of film is the boldest and most arrogant cinematic statement I’ve seen in a long while. It is a quote from Depression-era writer Damon Runyon, who coined the nickname that gives the film its title, about the real-life man that Howard’s film is based upon:
“The story of James J. Braddock is the best human interest story in the history of the sport of boxing.”
Ron Howard has huge balls. He wants to chew the fat and gristle off your movie for you and serve you a grade A, USDA-approved piece of Oscar mush and then tell you how good it tastes. Apparently, we are not allowed to make up our own minds about the movies we see anymore. The self-important director is warning you that you are about to witness the greatest boxing movie of all-time.
Aren’t you glad that you bought tickets to see this movie, he asks? Howard himself is cozying up to you, patting you on the back for your wise decision and priming you to sit back and enjoy a film of great magnitude.
After his boxing career hits the skids, Braddock (Crowe) goes to work on the docks and struggles to support his family during America’s Great Depression. An unexpected second chance comes in the form of a last-minute cancellation, hoisting Braddock into a string of fights that he cannot possibly win. To give away any more information about the plot would be pointless, because you know exactly what will happen next.
|Yaay! Dad’s taking us to Pre-Chew Charlie’s for dinner!|
The story’s predictability is only part of the problem. With a backdrop this rich, it is a shame that the larger implications of Braddock’s legend were not explored. While an out-of-work country attempted to get its legs back, the violent sport of boxing was more popular than ever. It represented every class and ethnic background, and thanks in part to eloquent sportswriters, the hopes of the working class were tied up in their boxing heroes, despite the fact that few could afford such a diversion. Rather than focusing on this fascinating dichotomy, Goldsman and co-screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and C. Gaby Mitchell spotlight the typical underdog element seen in every other sports movie, reducing it to a second-rate “Rocky” without that film’s character development.
Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire (Yo, Adrian!) had more real conflict and made a more believable couple then Zellweger and Crowe. Zellweger’s Mae Braddock is a loyal wife who never becomes more than a reflection of her husband. She is not so much a real character as she is a type. Luckily for James, she is like all the types that populate this rose-colored fairy tale, and can be uncharacteristically eloquent when the chips are down. At the precise moment that someone needs encouragement, a cute and simple maxim will fall from these character’s lips as if scripted by God himself, teaching us all the value in life’s little things.
Crowe has that perfect hang-dog look for this kind of role, and he knows it. He revels in his everydayness each moment he is onscreen. Someone with less weight as an actor would be a complete disaster with such a heavy-handed treatment. What Crowe does, though, is try to make Braddock convincing as a real person. Unfortunately, this is a tendency constantly at battle with the director’s rampant sentimentality.
In Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta takes out his own personal anguish on his opponents with graphic punishment. Audiences get this because RobertDeNiro paints a warts-and-all picture of LaMotta and the matches that follow are equally brutal. In “Cinderella Man,” Howard emphasizes this connection in Braddock’s life and then puts exclamation points around it. Braddock promises his son that despite their poverty, he will never send him away. During a fight when it looks as if all hope is lost, Howard depicts the fighter’s thoughts visually (flash! the children’s empty beds!) as if we didn’t already understand this concept. It is precisely this kind of pandering attitude that is insulting.
The only way to left to properly respond to Mr. Howard’s garish approach of film presentation is with a pre-approved, pre-digested quote of my own, from revered film critic Pauline Kael, who wrote in “Movies, the Desperate Art” way back in 1956:
“Those who are used to films which underscore and overscore every point for them are bewildered when they are required to use their own eyes and ears.”