Fairy tales don’t feel like fairy tales to the people that live them. Cinderella herself was having a pretty terrible time.
— Akiva Goldsman, New York Times (8 May 2005)
Paradoxical in any number of ways, fairy tales can be as depressing as they are heartening, fantastic as well as formulaic. They tend to end the same way repeatedly: a lesson is learned, a hardship overcome. As fairy tales tend to confirm the specialness of their underdog heroes, they are particularly popular among U.S. consumers, who believe in their own specialness. If you can find this dimension in a “real life” story, say, one involving community devastation, so that said specialness might be conveyed to all.
Ron Howard’s new movie fits all these bills. But even as it’s based on career of Depression era boxer James Braddock, Cinderella Man borrows more than its title from Grimm’s, though that bit is here credited to Damon Runyan, who anointed Braddock so because he fought back from enforced retirement and poverty in order to become the heavyweight camp. As embodied by Russell Crowe, Braddock is all this and more: utterly sincere and admirable, loyal and courageous, he is, as many viewers have already pointed out, a sort of Seabiscuit on two legs, a rallying point for a population suddenly transformed into underdogs. (It’s worth noting, though neither of these “populist” movies does, that many citizens — in 1929 and after — were afflicted by forces more insidious, institutional, and long-lasting than the crash.)
Cinderella Man charts Jim’s journey as a series of episodes, beginning with his status 1928 as a youthful, mildly successful boxer whose fall into hard times (a broken hand, some disappointing bouts) is only exacerbated by the economy’s collapse. Finding that he’s no longer marketable as a fighter, Jim spends the first part of the movie looking for occasionally work on the docks — it’s solid manly labor and Crowe’s physique is impressive, but Jim suffers some more, to underline the sheer brilliance of his eventual rise up. Fiercely protective of his scrunchy-faced, baby-talking wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and their young kids, Jim is beside himself when he can no longer provide for them. He endures all manner of physical and emotional duress in order to make rent on their tiny basement apartment in Jersey, even swallowing his pride in order to go on welfare.
All the while, he maintains faith that he can return to the ring. This despite the fact that Mae is openly rather glad he’s no longer fighting, his coworker Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine) vilifies his rickety last fights, and his mutteringly loyal manager/trainer Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) is selling furniture to be able to afford his own uptown apartment. Jim looks briefly thin and wasted, but though he’s a mightily gifted actor, Crowe just can’t be made to look vulnerable or beaten down, no matter how meticulously the makeup folks bruise his knuckles or hollow out his cheeks. His appearance, though, is less disconcerting than the film’s refusal to complicate his specialness.
Whether sad, frustrated, or even thinking about losing his temper, Jim is never less than stalwart. Caught up as the film’s righteous center, he’s sustained by his concern for his bland and underwritten family and the conceit that his personal crises mirror those of his community. When, in one scene, he confronts the aftermath of a riot and police violence in a Central Park Hooverville, Jim doesn’t observe the trouble, but fully bears the pain of a friend’s tragedy. It’s a weak gesture toward depicting the harrowing effects of the Depression, and pushing Jim along his way toward redemptive greatness.
Jim’s big heart takes him where you know it must — to a shot at the title. In order that he can inspire the downtrodden, Jim is signed up for a last minute undercard bout by hard-nosed promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill). Though he hasn’t trained or even eaten properly in months, Jim clobbers his opponent, noting afterwards that, if he can do this much damage eating hash before the fight (a treat from Joe, who leaves him spoonless, so Jim has to chow down like a dog), he’ll do even better once he’s eating steaks.
Such point-hammering sometimes makes the film hard to take. As Jim wins fight after fight, working his way toward the championship, ringside reporters go through their clichéd motions, narrating his progress, commenting on his improved left and his gritty determination. The construction of the final fight as underdog versus emblem of privilege is not a little contrived; the champ is a former underclass lug like Jim (as is often the case for boxers; it’s a sport that grants extraordinary class mobility to a previous few). Facing down the gigantic and obnoxious Max Baer (Craig Bierko), Jim learns that he once killed a man in the ring. He also goes out of his way to make a lascivious comment about little Mae, which ensures that he deserves punishment.
To counter this figure of privilege, Jim the media sensation becomes a courteous and humble spokesperson for “little people.” Mae goes to church to pray for her man, where she discovers the whole neighborhood turned out to share in her efforts. When immersed in such melodrama (delivered via Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman’s hagiographic script), the narrative is banal and deliberate.
To its credit, the movie does manage some striking boxing scenes — deftly choreographed, smartly shot, eerily subjective. While slow motion lends an overt and familiar poetry to such violence, the more effective shots come faster and more aggressively (and so, perhaps worrisome for younger viewers), punctuated by crowd reactions (some almost as disturbing as the fighters’ battered faces). Surprisingly inventive, these images can be jarring enough to alleviate some of the sappy factor. But they can’t quite get over the film’s more daunting problem, its utterly predictable fairy-taleness.