The Sunday Review: Cinderella Man

Sunday 21 May (2006)

cinderella man

I remember seeing a trailer for this movie a while back, and whilst I thought it looked quite interesting and that I might like to see it, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was just a pure Oscarthon. I mean, period sporting drama set in the great depression, award winning director, stars and co-stars… it just came across as a blatant 'we want awards' movie and that bugged me. I like Russell Crowe; he's a good actor, but he always seems to choose roles that see him awaiting plaudits soon afterwards. Renee Zellweger exemplifies this even more so – she used to be good fun and attractive, but then Bridget Jones came along and she started playing around with her weight, and now she just seems like a plastic phoney who'll only take a role if she's got a chance to walk down the red carpet come March.

It was these facts that put me off watching the film at the cinema, but as time went by and the Oscars came and went I saw that it didn't in fact win any (no doubt Crowe's phone-throwing incident helped there) and I decided to give it the chance I should have done the first time round.

The film depicts the story of James J. Braddock (Crowe), a successful boxer with a shot at the title. However, the depression comes along and along with injuries to his hands he's forced to put his aspirations aside in order to provide a living for his family – his wife Mae (Zellweger) and three children. Working at New York harbour he scrapes a living by boxing on the side, but after breaking his hand in a match he's kicked out of the boxing union and faces destitution. Eventually, his manager (Paul Giamatti in an Oscar nominated performance) is able to get him a fight against a contender – nothing more than a show match; he's not expected to last more than two rounds, and the only reason he's even fighting is because no-one else will do it on such short notice. Braddock surprises everyone with a fantastic performance, and kick-starts a career-revival that will eventually pit him against the champion, Max Baer – a powerful fighter who has killed other fighters with his hard blows.

Apparantly, Baer as depicted in the film is quite untrue to life. Craig Bierko (a good actor who always gives underrated performances, in my opinion) plays him as a mean thug – proud of the fact he has killed other fighters, and taunting Braddock and his wife before the match. Supposedly the real life man was much nicer and gracious, but I really don't know. Regardless, his portrayal gives the film some good balance against the do-good family man of Braddock and leads to a thrilling final fight.

I can't watch boxing films without comparing them to Rocky, and strangely this movie bears several comparisons. It gets away with them by the fact that it's a true story, but the similarities are many. Braddock = Rocky – a down-on-his-luck fighter who's given a final shot at the big time and seemingly does the impossible. Mae = Adrien – the worrisome wife who has to overcome her own misgivings about boxing in order to give her husband the support he needs to succeed. Baer = Apollo Creed/Clubber Lang – an outspoken champion who puts on a good show for the cameras, and provokes his opponent out of the ring. There are other characters in the film that fit roles in Rocky, but the comparisons aren't as stable – Paddy Considine puts in a terrific performance as Braddock's friend (= Pauly in Rocky) and Giamatti as the trainer and manager is a sort of high-class Mickey.

Luckily though the film spares us a training montage which we don't need to see (even the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby had some of those) and has considerable meat outside of the fighting scenes. Braddock is a father first and a fighter second. Everything he does in the movie is to support his family, and when the money gets so low that his wife sends the kids off to live with her sister he goes to the boxing club, cap-in-hand (literally) to ask his former employers for a loan. It's just about the most heartfelt scene in the movie with a great performance by Crowe – sure it's overly sentimental, but then the whole movie is and sometimes there's nothing wrong with a bit of feelgood.

It's a cliched, obvious film – we know where it's going long before we get there. Luckily it wins us over with some fantastic acting and the safety net that 'it's a true story' so we can't complain about how obvious it is. Howard has done this schtick before with Apollo 13 – a movie where we all know the outcome – but is seemingly capable of stringing us along until the final reel all the same.

It's mushy and we know the story before we even see it, but so what. It's a great movie and Crowe's best performance in a while. Heartily recommended, especially if you're in the mood for something to cheer you up.


One Response to “The Sunday Review: Cinderella Man”

  1. mr skin Says:

    Russell Crowe says he is getting too old to be an action hero? I didn’t see that one coming. He’s an awesome action hero in his movies. Hope this doesn’t mean he is going to stop being in those type of films.

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