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AT THE MOVIES: Rags to Riches: Cinderella Man (***1/2)

There is a great line in Citizen Kane about Kane’s wife Susan who is referred to in the newspapers as a “singer.”  Kane wanted to remove the quotation marks.  It seems that director Ron Howard, no matter how big a success he has become, isn’t ready or able to rest on his laurels.  He wants to delete the quotation marks around “director” and become not just “good for an actor,” but great.  With Cinderella Man he is closer than ever.

The same team that took A Beautiful Mind all the way to the Oscars is together again for this film: director Howard, producer Brian Grazer, writer Akiva Goldsman (along with Cliff Hollingsworth) and, of course, Howard’s brilliant muse, Russell Crowe. The notorious Mr. Crowe is again embroiled in an alleged physical assault, as he was during the publicity for A Beautiful Mind.  But we’ll get to that later.

The result of the collaboration is an engaging, heartbreaking film – one that is heads and shoulders above Howard’s usual fare.  He resists the urge here to go all-out smaltz, choosing instead to hold back and take a more honest, less sentimental view of the story of James J. Braddock, the unlikely boxing hero who “brought America to its feet” when it was down for the count. 

Perhaps because he himself remains under-appreciated, and is still considered a bit of a joke, Howard is interested (with his arty films anyway) primarily in unsung heroes – those who start out life with success but, for whatever reason, take a fall. It is their slow climb back to the top that Howard focuses on – like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and now Braddock.

James J. Braddock (Crowe) was a decent boxer, but when the Depression hit, he and his family became so poor that Braddock couldn’t afford to keep himself fit enough to fight.  As a result, he got kicked out of boxing by the commission and was forced to work the docks.  But he couldn’t earn enough to put food on the table for his family, and eventually was forced to go on government relief.  After begging for enough change to get his electricity turned back on, Braddock gets a break – he is given the chance to fight someone whose opponent  dropped out at the last minute.  They needed someone who could lose and no one would care.  They put him up, and, surprisingly, he won.   From there, his boxing career took off like wildfire – he became not just the most beloved boxer of the day, but a symbol of hope for those still buckled by poverty.

Howard is of Irish descent, his ancestors having immigrated to Oklahoma for the land grab.  His passion for the Irish failed him when he made Far and Away, but it serves him well here. It’s clear he feels a kinship with fellow Irishman Braddock.  Howard’s grandparents also lived through the Depression, another reason the story is close to his heart. 

As any of us know whose relatives lived through the Depression, that kind of poverty never goes away and, in fact, tends to be a motivating factor that lasts whole lifetimes.  In the film, when Braddock  is asked what he is fighting for, “Milk,” is his answer.  It is really that simple.  Who wouldn’t get their face beaten to a pulp so as never to see their children’s big eyes still hungry for breakfast, or watch as their children must live elsewhere because there’s no money to pay the electricity bill. 

As Braddock, Crowe is nothing short of a revelation.  Indeed, it is clear, there is no greater living actor.  Unfortunately, he also has a hell of a temper, and now, his work, and the work of everyone involved in the film is in danger of being spoiled because Crowe hurled a telephone at a hotel concierge.  Nonetheless, on screen he manages to portray this character with complexity, depth, the required fierceness and heart.  He is complimented by yet another miraculous performance by Paul Giamatti, who offers up the film’s best lines.  Howard lucked out with Giamatti, who plays, for the first time in a while, a man with more enthusiasm and good cheer than anyone else in the film.  We’ve become used to seeing him depressed and cynical, hunched over a drink of some sort, so his performance here is all the more winning.Cinderella Man is the kind of film that wins Oscars, no doubt about it.  But beyond that, it is a film that has the potential to make Americans remember a time when life wasn’t so easy, in the pre-Roosevelt days.  Sure, Howard takes liberties with the story, making certain characters meaner than they were in real life, and of course, the story is somewhat predictable.  You can do a Google search to find out what happened to Braddock.  But the film is still worth seeing, if, for no other reason, to admire the work of a director dead set on being brilliant.

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