243 – Cinderella Man

In 1928, James. J. Braddock was a champion light-heavyweight prizefighter. By 1933, though, he’d hit some pretty hard times, along with most of the rest of America. With a broken right hand and a doused spirit, Braddock was so pathetic in the ring that his license to fight was revoked. Unable to pay the bills, Braddock’s family has to sell off nearly everything it owns to survive. Braddock can’t even get steady work at the docks, as there are precious few jobs each day. In celebration of the indomitable American spirit, Braddock rises from his squalor ashes to challenge the legendary – and murderous – Max Baer for the heavyweight championship at Madison Square Garden.

Braddock (Russell Crowe) isn’t fighting for himself; he’s fighting for his wife Mae (Rene Zellweger) and their three kids and the entirety of the impoverished populace of America, people utterly destroyed and broken by the Great Depression. Crowe’s Braddock is resilient and courageous, undergoing tremendous suffering to keep his family honorably fed. Crowe himself is amazing, grim-faced, intrepid, humble, and noble. He doesn’t see boxing as his right, but as a distinct privilege. Crowe’s performance is gutsy, physically demanding, and so evocative that the viewer can feel the punches he’s taking – and dishing out.

Standing behind Braddock and his career choice is his long-suffering wife Mae, although it takes her some time to fully comprehend what Braddock’s struggles really mean. Zellweger portrays Mae as no wilting flower, able to love her husband for his boxing and in spite of it. Braddock’s other main source of inspiration comes in the person of his trainer/manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, who was nominated for an Oscar – finally). Gould cares very deeply about the welfare of his fighter, almost to the exclusion of everything else. He proves himself to be a true friend to Braddock, remaining with him through even the toughest times. Giamatti delivers a powerhouse performance as the cagey ringhand; it’s hard to imagine a runty looking guy like Giamatti could play such a tough-as-nails character, but he pulls it off, seemingly effortlessly.

Although this is a sports biopic, the movie never veers to the maudlin, never choosing melodrama over sincerity. Moving, compassionate, and beautiful, Cinderella Man is the kind of movie that makes even the manliest men weep openly and certainly leaves an indelible mark on your heart. The violence is brutal – particularly the final fight against Baer – but never gratuitously so, showing that the steady hand of director Ron Howard once again has produced a honest winner. The entire cast is magnificent (and look for Howard’s brother Clint in a small role).

Cinderella Man: ***1/2

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