Punches served with emotion
BOXER WITH A HEART: Cinderella Man.
Genre: Sports Biopic
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellwegger, Craig Bierko
Storyline: The almost-true story of legendary heavyweight champion Jim Braddock Bottomline: Flawless, but a tad self-serving.
Fact is stranger than fiction, and in the world of film, one might say that truth is more riveting than fiction could ever be. Sure, sports movies are always fun, and the more drama that can be written into the story, the better. However, at the end of a feel-good sports movie, you are often let down by how perfectly everything turned out. Could the underdog have ever performed so miraculously if the screenwriter hadn't been there to save them at every turn? Well, in `Cinderella Man' you don't have to think about it, because the story is largely true. Therein lies the fun.
The story traces the downfall and resurrection of James J. Braddock, heavyweight boxing champion from New Jersey who falls on hard times. He loses his title and is beset by the great depression. He finds himself unable to pay the electricity bills, feed his family and keep his wife secure. After going to his former boxing promoters to beg for money, he is given a chance to make a few quick bucks as the fall guy for the next great heavyweight contender. He doesn't fall, and instead ends up challenging for the heavyweight title, against Max Baer, a man who has killed two opponents. Reuniting the entire Oscar-winning team of `A Beautiful Mind,' from the director, Ron Howard, down to the screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the only downside of this film is that you can feel the team striving for another Oscar at every turn.
For no apparent reason, other than to make the film more dramatic, and increase their chances for critical glory, the filmmakers turn Braddock's final opponent, Max Baer, into a caricature villain who boasts about killing his opponents. (In real life he is not supposed to have behaved that way, and the family rightly complained about this.)
For a film which otherwise gives a nuanced portrayal of boxing, not as glorified pursuit, but as a means of survival, this is unnecessary, and comes off as self-serving. Braddock's desire to save his family would have created sufficient tension, without painting Baer as a murderous thug.
However, the power with which the film tugs at your emotions will make you forget that complaint. Russell Crowe gives a convincing performance as a too-proud man struggling to do what is right, and Renee Zellwegger does well as the long-suffering wife.
The real success of the film lies in this family dynamic. Braddock is fighting not for glory, but to put food on the table. In the rarefied world of sports, this brings the hero down to the level of everyman, so we can root for him as one of us.
During the well-constructed boxing scenes, the tension is palpable, because you find yourself screaming for Braddock with emotion that few sports films are able to evoke.
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