In the late 1920s, James J. Braddock enjoyed a successful career as a professional boxer, winning fight after fight with his powerful right hook, but like millions of other Americans, he was left broke after the stock market crash of 1929. Ironically, his boxing skills also deserted him at this time. After injuring his right hand in one fight, Braddock seeks work on the docks where he develops a mean left hook that will serve him well several years later. But with little work available even for unskilled laborers, even that means of support is hard to come by. Unable to care for his wife and their three children, Braddock swallows his pride and applies for government relief.
“I have to believe that when things are bad, I can change them,” he says.
Braddock’s luck does change when he’s picked as a last minute substitute for a fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Defying all the odds, Braddock wins in a third round knockout, and goes on to win several more fights before challenging Max Baer for the title of heavyweight champion of the world. Baer is as prosperous as Braddock is poor, and as played by Craig Bierko, the champ carries himself with all the bravado one might expect from a fighter who killed two men in the ring.
Director Ron Howard stages some marvelous boxing sequences, and the final bout is a brilliantly edited, sometimes brutal affair, but Cinderella Man always emphasizes Braddock the family man more than the fighter. When his son steals a salami, it matters not to Braddock that the family is barely subsisting on meals consisting of little more than fried bologna. He takes the boy to the butcher so he can return the stolen meal and apologize for his theft. He doesn’t discipline his son, but does tell him that stealing is always wrong, no matter how desperate the need. And Braddock has desperate needs, indeed. When the press, who have labeled him the “Cinderella Man” because of his amazing comeback, asks him to explain the turnaround in his fortunes, he explains that he now knows what he’s fighting for: “Milk.”
It may not be his intent, but Braddock is also fighting for the people. For millions of souls battered by the depression, he’s a folk-hero, a man whose incredible rise gives them hope that they, too, can beat the odds.
Director Howard beats the odds, too, by making this story work without relying on overly sentimental touches. Thomas Newman’s lovely score provides just the right touch. It accompanies the action without attempting to force emotions from the audience that the story doesn’t summon itself. Howard’s team also recreates depression era America believably. The atmosphere is suitably grim, but it’s scenes of the Braddocks’ having to water down their milk and of Braddock, with hat in hand, asking for handouts from his more affluent acquaintances that really hit home, as does Braddock’s visible guilt at having to break a promise not to send his children away to live with relatives better able to provide for them.
The performances hit home, as well. As Braddock, it’s not surprising that Russell Crowe is utterly believable in the boxing ring, but he’s equally superb at portraying Braddock the husband and father. This is a thoroughly decent man, and Crowe never fails to make him likeable. Renee Zellweger is one of the few contemporary actresses who looks right at home in the era depicted, and she excels as Braddock’s wife, Mae, so worried that her husband may die in the ring at the hands of the fearsome Baer that she refuses to even listen to the fight on the radio. Zellweger shows, as she did in Chicago and Cold Mountain, that no other actress is as effective in period pieces. Paul Giamatti, most recently seen in Sideways, is well-suited to period pieces, too, and as Braddock’s loyal manager, brings to mind such beloved character actors of the ‘30s as Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins.
“Boxing movies” rarely fare well at the box-office, and Cinderella Man has not had the real life Braddock’s luck in America. But like I said, this is not a “boxing movie,” but a heartfelt account of one man’s struggle to beat overwhelming odds. He succeeds, and so does the movie. Cinderella Man is Ron Howard’s finest film to date, and one of the best films of the year.
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2005 Brian W. Fairbanks