Cinderella Man

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/16/06 21:23:59

"Shame on you for trying to fool us again, Howard and Goldsman. Shame on you"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

It was to no real surprise that the Oscar sweeping team behind 'A Beautiful Mind' - director Ron Howard, writer Akisva Goldman and star Russell Crowe - reunited for another true life, inspiring story of battling against the odds that life stacks up. And it should come as no surprise then that the result is largely the same - a limp, condescending, historically inaccurate washout of a true life.

The Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s is hitting families hard across America. One such family is Jimmy Braddock (Russell Crowe), his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and their impossibly angelic children. Jimmy used to be a boxer -a good one - until a bad hand injury forced his premature retirement. Now he is forced to find the pennies wherever he can, which includes a mixture of begging and working on the docks. Salvation however comes with his old trainer and manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), who tells him that a prearranged fight is about to fall through because one of the fighters has pulled out - unless Jimmy can fill in. Jimmy does, and unsurprisingly makes a huge success of it, leading to a resurgence in his career culminating in a show down with the fearsome Max Bauer (Craig Bierko), a literal killer in the ring.

It's easy to see then, just why this story would appeal to the wholesome sensibility of Ron Howard and Akisva Goldmsan. After all, the Great Depression, selling off your kids, fighting for your life in front of a baying crowd - what's not to love? Unfortunately, Howard is a craftsman who just doesn't have the artistic temprament to view events through anything other than the most rose tinted of glasses, with the Great Depression here being just about the most gosh darn' prettiest time America has ever seen. Mae and the kids may be starving, but damn, they're cute. There's little feeling for the desperate and horrific reality of existence at that time, because Howard doesn't have the gut for it. He's not aided by a desperately poor screenplay by Goldsman that fails at even the most basic level.

At one point, Jimmy and Mae are forced to send their children away - but Jimmy gets them back in the next 10 minutes. No sense of loss and no sense of stretching the events across the narrative which would make much more sense, dramatically. And there are also the scenes that only ever exist in bad movie land, where characters improbably talk about the blatantly obvious situation around them, for those who may have (understandably) dozed off at home. It happens not once (with Jimmy returning home from a fight only for Mae to outline exactly who he is and what kind of a reputation he has), but twice (with Jimmy being in a fight with little success - a fact underlined by a commentator on the sidelines doing nothing but telling us how badly Jimmy is doing). The result of this patronising screenplay and Howard's sterile direction is a curiously passionless and uninvolving film. The boxing scenes are bloodless for the most part, with no attempt to address the morality of men being forced to beat each other up to the point of death, or face starvation. It's a film that lacks the visceral intensity of 'Raging Bull', the emotional uplift of 'Rocky' or even the wide sweep of Michael Mann's sorely underrated 'Ali'.

Lost in this morass are the actors. Crowe certainly convinces in the ring (unsurprisingly) but labouring under a bad hair dye, struggles to do anything else with the character of Jimmy. A caption at the end lists Jimmy's achievements, which make him sound like a real-life superman. The only problem with making him such a whiter-than-white person, is that that type of person tends to be really, really dull. Jimmy never argues, gets depressed or loses hope. While that may be very admirable for the time, it makes for a blank of a character. It's no surprise that Crowe's best work has been the morally conflicted characters of 'L.A. Confidential' and 'The Insider' or the vengeance filled Maximus of 'Gladiator' - he needs something to get his teeth into. Here, he gets nothing and Jimmy becomes a strangely uncompelling character - certainly nothing to show why the whole of America apparently fell in love with him.

Zellweger, however, is simply miscast. She's got a fine comic timing, but resorts to corn and syrup in dramas - particularly when she's got lines like "You are the champion of my heart" to drool out. Giamatti has the most fun in his colourful role, but the strangest attention is doled out to Paddy Considine as Mike, Jimmy's dockside co-worker who is keen to start up a union, whilst dealing with an alcohol problem and abusive tendencies towards his wife. He's the most interesting character, so predictably he's derailed in a sideline of a plot that goes nowhere. Can't have anything ambiguous or morally complex in there can we? On a side note, anyone who's aware of Considine's work in films such as 'In America' and 'Dead Man's Shoes' will surely agree that he would have probably been a much more interesting choice to play Braddock than Crowe.

Mention must also go to Max Baer here. He's set up as a Drago-esque brute, casually threatening Braddock with death and making leering comments to Mae. In reality, Baer did kill a man in the ring - by accident. An accident that he was personally mortified by, with the result of him abandoning boxing, only taking it up years later to raise money for the widow of the other boxer. He's nowhere near the monster that Howard portrays here, which leads to two questions: 1) why couldn't Howard have stayed true to the real life story of Baer?, 2) or, why couldn't he have simply invented a totally fictitious fighter for the climax of the film?

No, apparently Howard and Goldsman must piss on the legacy of a good man and smear his name, all for the sake of a crude b-movie villain. But then, what else should we expect from a man who whitewashed the life of John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind', simply to make it more morally palatable? Hell, he even had to invent a fight between the astronauts in 'Apollo 13'. Yes, because that story just wasn't exciting as it was anyway, was it?
With 'Cinderella Man', Howard just gives more proof that he is cinemas greatest historical revisionist since the days of Liefenstahl and Griffith.

'Cinderella Man' has numerous problems - it's dull, dramatically stupored, historically dishonest, wastes numerous good actors - but perhaps the biggest flaw, is that on paper it's still a hell of a good story. Which makes Howard's smothering, limp and patronising treatment all the worse.

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