Fri, Sep 23, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Blood, guts and tears

'Cinderella Man' brings the lifeof James J. Braddock to the big screen for the first time

By Manohla Dargis  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

On June 13, 1935, the boxer James J. Braddock fought the fight of a lifetime. Born in Hell's Kitchen when that New York neighborhood still warranted that rough-and-tumble epithet, the 30-year-old heavyweight was the son of immigrants whose bloodlines and hardscrabble woes traced back to Ireland. Said to have weighed more than 7.7kg at birth, the adult Braddock tipped the scales around 81.6kg, stood nearly 2.6m and was in the possession of a 190cm reach. His most famous opponent, the Livermore Larruper, Max Baer, had a 206cm reach, bringing him dauntingly close to Braddock's lopsided grin.

In Cinderella Man, his movie about Braddock and the fight of his life, the director Ron Howard brings you viscerally close to understanding how that sideways smile was almost erased. Played by Russell Crowe with moist eyes and restless animal vigor, the pugilist known as the Cinderella Man entered the ring against Baer (an excellent Craig Bierko) with the odds 10-to-1 against him. The story of how this well-regarded boxer down on his luck faced those odds is one of the most celebrated in American sport, so it's a wonder it has never before been told on-screen. Filled with ups and heartbreaking downs, it is a story that can put a lump in your throat, though given Howard's inclination toward hokum, a lump on which you might easily gag.

Howard begins his film with a quote from Damon Runyon, who bequeathed Braddock his fairy-tale nickname. (According to Jeremy Schaap's fast-moving book, also titled Cinderella Man, the fighter was more prosaically known as Irish Jim Braddock.) The Runyon quote constitutes the best writing in the film, which features a serviceable screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and the higher-profile Akiva Goldsman. Goldsman also wrote Howard's much-lauded, multiple Academy Award-winning film, A Beautiful Mind, a work similarly steeped in nostalgia and hooey, the latter exemplified by the image of Crowe corrugating his meaty brow to play a tormented math genius. Crowe, a vibrantly physical screen presence, looks far more persuasive slicked with sweat and slugging other men.

Film Notes:

Cinderella Man

Directed by: Ron Howard

Starring:Russell Crowe (Jim Braddock), Renee Zellweger (Mae Braddock), Paul Giamatti (Joe Gould), Craig Bierko (Max Baer), Paddy Considine (Mike Wilson), Bruce McGill (Jimmy Johnston), David Huband (Ford Bond), Connor Price(Jay Braddock), Ariel Waller (Rosemarie Braddock)

Running time: 144 minutes

Taiwan Release: Today


In 1928, the year Cinderella Man opens, Braddock seemed to have all the right moves. Then a light heavyweight, the boxer was young, supremely healthy and both talented enough and dumb enough to earn a good living with his fists. The Crash changed his fortune as well as his optimistic outlook, and thereafter Braddock entered an agonizing downward spiral. Within a few years, he and his wife, Mae, played in the film by Renee Zellweger as a sniffling, squinting Kewpie doll, were living in a basement apartment with their young children and trying to keep the wolf from the door. In 1934, when his manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), asked Braddock if he wanted a fight, the boxer was wielding a baling hook on the Jersey docks. Almost a year had passed since his last bout.

Like Gary Ross's Seabiscuit, the legend of the little Depression-era horse that could, Cinderella Man is a shamefully ingratiating old-fashioned weepie. To his credit, Howard does not wave the flag as vigorously as Ross, though the new film's tagline ("When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet") prepares you for the worst. In any event, given that Howard and his writers would be hard-pressed to bend this underdog narrative to our current political nightmare, it's a good thing they don't venture down that path. And with this material, there really is no need. Lightly stained a nicotine brown and topped by two male actors who could steal a movie from a basket of mewling kittens and an army of rosy-cheeked orphans, the film is as calculating and glossy a hard-luck tale as any cooked up on the old M-G-M lot.

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