Monday, June 13, 2005

Cinderella Man - More Seabiscuit than Raging Bull

Cinderella Man is a miraculous find, the kind of movie that takes you back into time into a perilous world we have only heard about from our parents or grandparents. It isn’t a world we enter willingly.

Although Cinderella Man has been compared to Seabiscuit in its portrayal of The Great Depression and the people caught in its maelstrom, Cinderella Man goes deeper, painting with a broader brush. Director Ron Howard's re-creation of Hooverville, although brief, delivers a solar plexus punch of what conditions must’ve been like for millions.

Russell Crowe has, again, delivered a portrayal outside his body. He somehow has a gift for altering his body, morphing it to fit his idea of what his role should be. He becomes a three-dimensional James J. Braddock.

Braddock seems a likeable enough man, swept by the tide of America’s misfortune in the ‘30’s. Unlike many, however, Braddock had measured success in his early career as a boxer. But when he started losing fights, he is forced to seek work on the docks, like so many others, just to feed his family. We see the day-to-day wrenching struggle to pay the light bill, put food in his babies’ mouths.

Renee Zellwegger, certainly one of the finest actors of our day, almost disappears into the woodwork of this film. Ah, but what fine woodwork. She is the fabric of her family -- brave, true, fighting with herself in an ethical battle to provide for her kids and keep her family together. Together she and the New Jersey Everyman Braddock are a team, a damn fine one. We’re pulling for them, the American family, to survive this apparition, one that certainly could come back to overtake us. Howard’s film reminds us that we are not that far from the Braddock family.

Crowe’s Braddock isn’t the most forceful entity on the screen, so Howard needed a sparring partner to show off his integrity and valor. That’s when we meet Paul Giamatti in another role that he masterfully defines. Giamatti is Joe Gould, Braddock’s promoter and champion. He is brash where America’s hero can’t be.

Perhaps unnecessary, however, is a counterpoint portrayal of “Mike,” a friend of Braddock’s who deals with his troubles by turning to alcoholic binges instead of his family. Other performances, however, sparkle, like actor Craig Bierko’s Max Baer, at once a monster and a showboat. He truly lights up the screen with his bravado.

Ron Howard tackles big themes in Cinderella Man: the resilience of the American spirit, family values. Did I mention this is a boxing story? That’s because it really isn’t. It’s an American story, and it succeeds brilliantly. This is easily the best movie so far in 2005. Thumb’s up.


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