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Cinderella Man

What is it about the sport of boxing that punctures right through everything on the surface into the core of human drama? It could be that we are born to rely solely upon ourselves. It could also be that our very being depends on our ability to make something of what was given to us at birth. Like last year’s phenomenal Million Dollar Baby, Ron Howard’s latest film tells a story of a pugilist protagonist who struggles to rise through the muck of social injustice, but this time during a little dark corner of American History we like to call the Great Depression.

Eschewing the melodic brilliance of Eastwood’s minimalist approach, Howard’s stance is a bit more traditional, and a bit more studio in tone. In fact, had this film been produced at any other time by the studio system, it would likely be trumped up at yet another slickly produced historical human interest drama, yet Howard somehow manages to look past all of this and see the added relevance that this story packs when paralleled with the fears of today’s economic climate.

Sure, we aren’t in the midst of any national crisis, yet. But discuss economic conditions with any coastal dweller living in a metropolis of moderate size and chances are the cost of either a) living, and/or b) gas will be brought up rather quickly and chances are, a discussion of the job market and its sagging trends will not be too far in tow.

The story at hand is that of James Braddock (Russell Crowe), a boxer who falls on bad times along with everyone else in the country when the stock market came crashing down. Braddock had it all, pre-crash, as he was a successful and undefeated fighter whose earnings had been, at the time, wisely invested in stocks and bonds. Howard’s hand is steady as we see Braddock’s family move from a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle to the cusp of skid row. Despite their struggles, Braddock is still fighting. However, now he is fighting injured, relying on whatever purse he can scrape up to keep the gas and electric flowing to the tiny Braddock apartment.

After a disparaging match, in which both boxers appear to be dancing for their paychecks rather than actually boxing for title shots, Braddock is decommissioned, losing any hope for his family’s survival. Braddock’s stilted match was largely due to his decision to box with a broken arm, knowing that his family needed the money more than he needed to go without further pain. Howard plays these cards well, and knows that deep down each and every one of us fears that these days may darken American soil one day in the near future.

Russell Crowe, who is either a “take ‘em” or “leave ‘em” actor in my book, manages to pull off the role in a convincing enough manner. His performance brought to mind a recent conversation regarding George Clooney. My brother mentioned that he could care less for Clooney because he essentially brings the same performance to each character, at which point he proceeded to do his best Clooney impersonation, head bob and all. Being a fan of Clooney’s work this was difficult to understand at first, until watching Cinderella Man.

Crowe essentially brings “Crowe” to each role, but here he surpassed himself, making one forget that “Russell Crowe” is onscreen and instead sinking into the telling of Braddock’s struggles to survive during the Great Depression. He is completely believable as a man who would rather brutalize himself in the ring then watch as his family suffers as he fails to get selected for work at the docks day to day. Renee Zellweger also manages to lose herself in a role that could easily have been one note in its depiction. Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth wisely inject the voices of several wives at crucial points, contradicting what was once mistaken as idle contentment with the husbands’ choices to physically risk it all with an internal struggle of mental strain and concern for the well being of their loved ones.

Visually, Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino manage to find new ways to make the drama within the ring look anew. Chaotic and often confusing, the camera tends to look away from the action, adding a new found frustration to the usual ebb and flow of filmic ring antics. Usually, the most brutal blows are rendered in slow motion close-up, just in case viewers couldn’t make out the contortions of fist-to-face brutalization occurring with each punch.

The key difference here is that Totino sometimes pulls the camera away, just as a vital blow is set to be delivered, and instead gives us a glimpse of the audience members’ reactions from a perspective fixed within the ring. This isn’t a fighter’s viewpoint, mind you, as when the camera pans back to the action the fighters remain ever engaged in fisticuffs. This is more like a “ghost’s-eye-view” of historic events as they occur, and it adds enough spice to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The other stylistic improvement upon the fighting sequences is the attention paid to the action occurring between rounds. The corner men are often reduced to clichés in films such as this, offering rigid advice in gravely yells between rounds. Here we are presented with Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), who is in many ways the antithesis of the standard corner man stereotype. Joe isn’t the derelict guru that was unearthed from whatever rock he was hiding under, instead he is a socialite whose prowess in shoehorning talent into profitable bouts has struggled with the decline in economic climate, but not so much to send him packing out of his posh Manhattan apartment. Gould is in good with the big boys of Madison Square Garden post-crash, and this plays a larger role in the later acts, as Braddock comes, hat in hand, asking for a handout for his family’s sake. After all, he made these men rich in his prime, it should be a given that they contribute to a relief fund for his kids.

Giamatti, once again, offers a performance that is so delicately nuanced that a nod should be warranted during award season, but whether he will go on overlooked yet again remains to be seen. He plays Gould in lush three dimensional tones, and the arc taken is so well shielded that even the keenest of eyes will take heart in the outcome.


Mario Anima

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