One of the dangers of being a movie critic is losing touch with the part of you that is not too jaded to cry buckets at a tear-jerker—i.e., your inner sap. Or maybe that's one of the benefits—it depends. In any event, my inner sap was rising as I watched Cinderella Man (Universal). It's schmaltzy—but it's schmaltz veined with foie gras. It's directed by Ron Howard, produced by Brian Grazer, and co-written by Akiva Goldsman (with Cliff Hollingsworth), the team that brought you A Beautiful Mind. In that blockbuster Oscar-grabber, Howard and Goldsman shamelessly distorted the facts of their subject's life and charted a schizophrenia that exists only in movies, with tidy borders between fantasy and reality and a recurring cast of Imaginary Friends. But the film was structured so ingeniously, and Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly were so vivid, that it would have taken a stronger man than me to keep the sap down. My disgust was retroactive.
Incredibly, Cinderella Man is even more manipulative. It's a three-hankie weeper: You need two for your eyes and one to stanch your sympathetic nosebleed. It's the story of James J. Braddock, the lovable, hangdog heavyweight boxer, and his mousy but rock-hard-when-it-matters wife, Mae. As in life, his family goes from comfort in the '20s, when Braddock is winning, to near-bottom at the peak of the Depression. Braddock is washed up as a fighter, he can't get even day-labor jobs, his kids are starving and sick, and then the electricity gets shut off. Down, down, down: It's laid on so thick it should be laughed off the screen.
But, as in A Beautiful Mind, there is Russell Crowe, and what a mesmerizing dude he has become. In every performance his physique, posture, and rhythms change. His Braddock is tender, with a lopsided grin, appraising eyes, and a head with a slight bobble—from dodging punches, maybe, but also suggestive of a Haymaker's Jig. There's something of the archetypal happy-go-lucky (cinematic) Irishman about him—and that's fine: The way he stylizes the performance lightens the bathos. Renée Zellweger's Mae is less inventive. She has a twittery-trembly voice, a primly set mouth, and eyes so squinched they almost vanish into her dumpling cheeks. But if she's not a knockout, she wins on points. Her sincerity shines through. As Braddock's manager, Joe Gould, Paul Giamatti is a knockout, with a wonderful jabbering attack that lets him weave in and out of Crowe's more delicate cadences. It's a great matchup, and both actors triumph.
This Depression-era fable has the plush design that only an A-list cast and director can justify, but once you get past the lack of grit in Howard's technique, the zillion-dollar antique cars, and the shadowy, deep-toned palette of cinematographer Salvatore Totino, the scariness of life in '30s America does take hold. You watch the day laborers begging for work and feel their constant nagging fear—not of what FDR called "fear itself" but of the literal shortage of milk for kids. After his miracle comeback—and, by the way, "Cinderella Man" was a moniker actually bestowed on him by Damon Runyon—Braddock tells reporters, "I'm fighting for milk." That's a man acting on an instinct more primal than the one that impels him to fight.
And those fights? Stunning. No, they're not Expressionist ballets, as in Raging Bull. You see them largely from Braddock's point of view (and Gould's, and Mae's—even though she's never there), with white flashes of pain (sometimes intercut with fast images of his kids) and cunning shifts in speed. Every blow makes you cringe: Crowe's Braddock seems so breakable that when he comes up with the quick combinations that lay his opponents flat, you're amazed, even if you know the story going in.
Cinderella Man builds to Braddock's title bout with blowhard champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who had already beaten two boxers to death. According to Jeremy Schaap's biography, Baer—while clownish in the ring—was conflicted about fighting and feared killing more men. In the film, he's a pretty conventional (if entertaining) windup preen-and-sneer machine who delivers low blows and even purrs to Mae that if Braddock dies, she can always visit him. And there's an eerier antagonist: boxing kingpin Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill), a chill, immaculately tailored capitalist pig who casts Braddock out of boxing and only lets him back in when Gould convinces him it's good for the bottom line. Does McGill play more loathsome parts than any man alive? I'd love to see him in a few more sympathetic roles, like the one he played in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
If the movie has no use for fat cats, it also comes with a weird anti-welfare tinge. The real Braddock was ashamed of accepting charity, and Howard and Goldsman seem to endorse his view. Or perhaps they're too opportunistic to let another chance to humiliate their protagonist pass. Desperate to reclaim his kids from better-off relatives (he promised his son that he wouldn't send the kid away), Braddock gets in line for government relief, and the woman at the window says, sickened, "I never thought I'd see you here, Jim." Who the hell is she? And why does she express contempt for the people she gives aid to—in the middle of the Great Depression? A Communist-organizer friend (Paddy Considine), meanwhile, is an angry, doomed figure—in contrast to Braddock, who regards attempts to change the system as like "punching stuff you can't see." What saves Braddock is his preference for actual fisticuffs—along with, ironically, his hard labor in docks and freight yards, which helped him build up his weaker left hand.
For all I know, Ron Howard is a nasty S.O.B., but it's doubtful. In public, he's still Opie, and his films are conservative in ways that would gladden Sheriff Andy's heart. (Too bad there's no Barney Fife to undercut the sanctimony.) Howard manipulates audiences without guile, jerking tears, piling on catastrophes, smoothing out dissonances, making bad characters badder and good ones gooder—and clearly believing that this is wholesome, or movies like Cocoon, A Beautiful Mind, and Cinderella Man wouldn't work. At what he does, he's peerless. I wish I had more respect for what he does—and for myself the next morning for surrendering.
Update: I'm indebted to Alan Yudman for suggesting an alternate reading of the woman-in-the-window line: that, for her, seeing Braddock on the dole was the ultimate proof of the tragedy of the Depression. Maybe he's right—it makes more sense than my interpretation. But because of Braddock's own self-disgust at having to ask for help from the government, I heard the line as a rebuke—as, I think, Braddock does.
The larger point is that, in Cinderella Man, no one has any expectations of a safety net—not even as the Roosevelt administration is crafting the New Deal to protect the have-nots from the ultimate degradation of poverty and starvation. The Commie who wants to change society in more fundamental ways is ineffectual. It's the apolitical Braddock and his improbable second chance at fame and fortune, the movie says, that is the brightest beacon of hope for the downtrodden. Go celebrity!