Sunday, June 11, 2006

Cinderella Man

Most people who don’t follow boxing probably know as little about James J. Braddock as I did going into “Cinderella Man. Braddock was a heavyweight fighter who started his career in the late 1920’s. He showed great promise and eventually earned a shot at the heavyweight title in 1928. Braddock went 15 rounds against the champ, Tommy Loughran, but lost by decision and left the fight with a broken hand. His subsequent career slide perfectly mirrored America’s slide into the desperation of the Great Depression. By 1933 Braddock was considered washed up, losing considerably more fights than he won. Ultimately, his boxing license was revoked. He scrambled for scarce jobs on the docks to feed and house his family, just like millions of men across the country during that period. Then, in 1934, Braddock got a second chance. Tapped to be an easy knockout for a rising young boxer, Braddock returned to the ring and pulled off an upset. He ultimately parleyed that into a second shot at the heavyweight championship against Max Baer.

Russell Crowe plays Braddock in “Cinderella Man,” an agile telling of this comeback story. Natural performances by Crowe, Renee Zellweger as the wife, and Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s manager make the film heartfelt without being overly sentimental. “Cinderella Man” is what “Seabiscuit” would have been if it had been a little less sugary. It is so much better than the syrupy glop that was 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” that I won’t even bother comparing them further.

The film is supposedly pretty historically accurate except for the pro-wrestling-bad-guy portrayal of Max Baer. Baer was something of a roguish clown, and he did kill Frankie Campbell in the ring. “Cinderella Man” portrays him as being flippant about it and bragging that he would do the same to Braddock, but historical accounts describe Baer as deeply shaken by Campbell’s death. He even took it upon himself to provide support for the fallen boxer’s family. Another boxing fact: Baer, whose father was Jewish, defeated Nazi poster-boy Max Schmeling, becoming a national hero in his own right. Apparently director Ron Howard found it more dramatic to gloss all that over and portray Baer as a villain.

Braddock’s boxing comeback would have made a remarkable story at any time, but coming as it did during the Great Depression, it made him a national hero. It is not surprising that he was a source of hope and inspiration for a country full of people who felt like washed-up fighters themselves. What is surprising is that such an agile telling of this tale did so poorly in theaters today. Despite Russell Crowe’s draw, a fantastic trailer, and a theatrical re-release that included a money-back guarantee, the film has been considered a financial disappointment. It seems that the movie-going public’s brief, post-9/11 love affair with genuine, heartwarming, American stories is over. Now we are back to the irony and cynicism of movies like “Crash.” No matter, I’m willing to bet that in 20 years, “Crash” (which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005.) will be forgotten, while “Cinderella Man” will stand alongside “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” as one of our greatest boxing movies.

4.5/ 5 stars

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