By William Wolf

CINDERELLA MAN  Send This Review to a Friend

In the process of turning out a rip-roaring, nail-biting boxing film, director Ron Howard has done the favor of reminding audiences of how terrible the Great Depression of the 1930s was, something young audiences today may hardly realize. Jim Braddock, the New Jersey hero of “Cinderella Man,” is shown struggling to feed his family under humiliating conditions in a sea of poverty with 15 million unemployed. His rise from despair to become heavyweight boxing champion is all the more meaningful as he carries with him the hopes of other working class men and women that somehow their lives can turn around. That’s a lot to pack into a story, but Howard pushes the right buttons to stir audience involvement and bring cheers for Braddock as both a man and a fighter.

Russell Crowe in the title role does a fabulous acting job (polish up an Oscar statue). He may not show the brawn one would expect from a heavyweight fighter but he shows plenty of acting brawn, and the magic of cinema, with the intense and often vicious staging of boxing matches, raises the credibility level. Paul Giamatti, in a role totally different from his character in “Sideways,” turns in a colorful and impassioned performance as Joe Gould, Braddock’s tough but sympathetic manager, and Renée Zellweger is touching and lovely as Braddock’s struggling wife, Mae, who is loving and loyal despite her fears that her husband will be severely or even fatally hurt.

The film builds carefully toward the big moment when Braddock gets his shot at the title in his match against Max Baer (Craig Bierko). In the screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, based on a story by Hollingsworth, it isn’t enough to make Baer an opponent. Apparently for dramatic purposes, they have to turn him into a villain worth defeating, with Bierko alternating between showing off, as Baer was known to do, snarling and taunting Braddock with remarks about his wife. That seems excessive, but it does add to the tension and fuels Braddock’s motivation to win when he was expected to be dispatched in a hurry. The boxing scenes are designed to make an audience cheer even though the outcome is known as part of sports history.

But the film has more soul than that. The ugly, manipulative side of boxing is shown, as are the dangers and the blood lust of the crowds. The scenes dramatizing the Great Depression are also effective. People lived in what were called Hoovervilles, named after President Herbert Hoover, who presided over the plunge into poverty. The film shows one such Hooverville of makeshift shacks in New York’s Central Park, which should be a jolt for those who think of that park mainly as a venue for rock concerts and free Shakespeare.

We haven’t had a film in a while that presents such a realistic background of America on its butt, and this adds to the emotional dimension as well as the ultimate emotional release. Although there is an all-things-are-possible-in-America glibness to the plot and the payoff, the film gains from its depiction of an underlying sense of decency about its hero and ordinary people who do their best in times of struggle to keep food on the table and raise their children. “Cinderella Man” is about much more than boxing. A Universal Pictures, Miramax Films and Imagine Entertainment release.


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