Cinderella Man

Boxing stories, by their nature, are extremely limited in their outcome: either the protagonist wins or loses. What makes a great boxing movie are the variables, the sucker punches that force us to reexamine our expectations. Winning or losing isn=t nearly as important as the road to the ring, the journey of self discovery, both mental and physical which defines the essence of a fighter.

The best boxing films deal with underdogs who rise from obscurity or has-been hell to achieve personal and international success and fulfillment. The best boxing films deal with contenders who step in to the ring to prove something, not just collect a paycheck. It takes a special breed of man to give and take a punch.

Jim Braddock (Crowe) is such a man, an up-and-coming pugilist nicknamed The Bulldog of Bergen. As Cinderella Man begins, it’s November 1928, and things are looking up for Braddock and his wife Mae (Zellweger), who loves her husband but can’t stand to see him fight. Mae knows Jim’s hands are their bread and butter, but when the Great Depressions hits and Jim loses favor with the public, his life as a boxer begins to jam them up.

Forced to take a job as a longshoreman, Braddock desperately tries to make ends meet for his family (including three kids) while nursing a bruised ego and broken hand. When the electricity is turned off, Braddock can’t see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Then fate shines. His old manager, Joe Gould (Giamatti) arrives with an offer: step into the ring as a last minute replacement to fight a heavyweight champion. No one expects Braddock to win, including Braddock. All he wants is the $250 purse.

In Cinderella Man, fairytales do come true, as Jim not only wins the bout, but goes on to become a major contender against champion Max Baer (Bierko), a ferocious boxer with a reputation for killing opponents. In Ron Howard’s beautifully realized slice of Americana, history repeats itself with passion and sweat. In and out of the ring Cinderella Man is a champ, a touching, honest, sweet and brutal film which embraces every boxing film cliche with aplomb. The mechanics of the screenplay dictate their inclusion, yet writers Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman punch through the obvious.

As we= re dealing with facts, the value is in the trip, and what a trip. Director Howard seamlessly transports us back to another time and place, where digital artistry and production design combine to create a world that makes it easy to suspend disbelief. Inhabiting this photo realistic landscape are people who are larger than life but always grounded by their intrinsic human desires and disappointments. Howard has assembled a talented roster of actors to flesh out Cinderella Man, and each one scores a knockout.

Crowe, with his classic good looks and earnest expressions, makes the perfect Braddock. One look at him Braddock and we see a man of great strength, and after one encounter with Mae, we see a man of great peace and love, someone willing to go the distance to make his family proud. There’s a powerful inner strength in Zellweger’s Mae, a woman who understands her husband’s dreams and desires but can’t bring herself to watch him in action. Even as she waits patiently at home, Zellweger helps us believe Mae’s heart is always in the ring with Braddock.

Looking like a Damon Runyon character, Giamatti strikes the perfect pose as Braddock’s agent, while Bierko makes a sympathetic opponent. Detail perfect, Cinderella Man is a film which doesn’t so much demand as request your time. It’s a little long, but you never feel like you’re being held prisoner by a film which has overstayed its welcome.

Quite the contrary, Cinderella Man is a welcome respite from films with larger-than-life situations and insignificant characters. Cinderella Man may be larger-than-life, but it never dwarfs the emotional payoff.

Fighting Depression

Cinderella Man Punches Out Competition

Cinderella Man

Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill. Directed by Ron Howard. 144 Minutes. Rated PG-13.

Larsen Rating: $9.00

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