The people behind A Beautiful Mind have re-teamed on another real-life story, but with less successfui results. It has the ingredients — evocative portrayal of an earlier time, an inspiring story of a deeply loving and supportive married couple stuggling and triumphing over overwhelming adversity, and a beautifully sincere and subtle performance by Russell Crowe. But it is less satisfying because it tells you more than it shows you about how important it all is.
The story of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind was better suited for portayal in the movies because it was newly public. One of the biggest obstacles in a movie, whether fictional or fact-based, is trying to convey that a character captures the attention and affection of the public at large. This story, about heavyweight champion James J. Braddock (Crowe) depends heavily on the ability of scriptwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard to convey its importance in part by showing that he was overwhelmingly popular and its significance in part by showing how he was a symbol of his era. Both take so much time and effort and narrative away from the story of the individuals involved that they leave little room for them to be anything but saintly.
So, we know they are honest, hardworking, loving people and we know that they are going to make it. The name of the movie is, after all, “Cinderella Man,” not “Unhappy Ending Man.” That leaves us to make a movie out of getting from the triumph to the hardship and back again, and with the narrative focus dissipated by trying to show us how much it all mattered back then, it makes it impossible to show us how much it matters now.
The movie follows Braddock and his family as they face hardship and adversity, both in the ring and out. The core of the movie is Crowe’s superb performance as the boxer Braddock with a jaunty smile and a powerful and utterly transformed physical presence that goes as far as possible to hold the story together. Paul Giamatti is excellent, as always, as Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould.
“Cinderella Man” has little of the complexity and humanity that we have come to enjoy in Ron Howard’s recent work. Don’t look for nuance of the kind found in A Beautiful Mind. You’ll find no insights here about human nature, and no cause for reflection. Instead, this is a simplistic morality play where the bad guys are really bad, the good guys are unqualifiedly good, and the conflict between good and evil is reduced to the simplicity of punching in the ring.
Braddock is portrayed as a virtuous family man who adores his wife and children, is upright and honest (he instructs his children that it is wrong to steal food even when the family is near starving), and who goes to extraordinary lengths to keep promises to children and look out for his friends. Of course, he is pitted against cold-blooded mercenary fight promoters and a demonic, vicious boxing foe with a reputation for killing his opponents.
Howard places a great deal of emphasis on the sights and sounds of the depression. The boxing scenes are thrilling and dynamic. Howard has paid attention to and learned from the many boxing films that have gone before, and has advanced the choreography of the fight, in part by using new technologies to create up close, fast-paced personal combat. But “Cinderella Man” is not just a battle between good and evil on a personal level. Braddock’s personal sainthood might be too subtle for the audience, so Braddock is also larded up as the personification of all the poor and the downtrodden workers struggling for hope and dignity during the depression, the symbolic champion of the oppressed everywhere. And just in case you might try to forget it for even a moment, a desperate Braddock finds extra inspiration for his punches in the ring from visions of the oppressed proletariat. Those montages are more heavy-handed than the thud of boxing gloves on Russell Crowe’s face.
By throwing his customary ballast overboard, and reducing everything to a simplistic conflict, Howard creates a lesser work of art but nevertheless a rousing crowd pleaser. “Cinderella Man” dedicates a film maker’s considerable skill to catching the audience and investing them in the outcome of a series of battles. The movie is beautifully filmed, with the grim, spartan conditions of the urban, depression-era winter filmed in a muted palette. The dark and grimy rooms and buildings contrasted with the blinding white snow reinforces the black-and-white morality of the film’s message.
Parents should know that the movie has many brutal boxing matches, powerfully portrayed, with serious injuries, which may be upsetting to some audience members. The themes of poverty and family stress may also be disturbing. Characters use brief strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about what it was about Braddock that made him such an appealing hero to the working people during the Depression.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy some of the classic boxing films, from Rocky to Body and Soul. They may want to learn more about Braddock. The book Cinderella Man: James Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History is a good place to start. Braddock appears in The Fight, a documentary about one of the most famous boxing matches of all time, the 1938 bout where Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling.