Boxing for Oscars
Ron Howard Delivers The First Oscar Magnet of the Year
By Cole Smithey
"Cinderella Man" was the first movie of 2005 to have multiple Oscar nomination contingencies thanks to a compelling script expertly acted and directed. Russell Crowe brings his estimable talents to bear as a Depression era familyman and boxer (Jim Braddock) who keeps his priorities straight in the face of unrelenting turmoil. Renee Zellweger rises to the acting challenge as Jim’s loyal wife Mae who provides a stable if worried guardian of familial wellbeing. But it’s Paul Giamatti who glues the story together as Joe Gould, Jim’s commendable boxing manager who guides his accomplished boxer through every fight. Director Ron Howard expertly utilizes the music of silence to underscore a deeply felt movie based on real-life boxing underdog James J. Braddock. The boxing sequences here are better than those of Martin Scorsese’s bar-setting boxing drama "Raging Bull."
"Cinderella Man" has an inverted narrative structure that begins on a high note. Then the rug is pulled out so we feel as if we’re watching a third act. We meet Jim Braddock during the highlife of the roaring ‘20s. The workaday boxer returns to his loving wife in their large New Jersey home with a wad of cash and wearing a suit that disguises the ferocious battle he’s just won in the ring.
Cut to 1929 when Jim and his wife are living in a basement apartment with barely any money for electricity or to feed their three children. Jim’s son Jay (Connor Price) steals salami from a local deli. The prudent father goes with the boy to return the meat to the shop owner. Instead of reprimanding Jay, the humiliated father talks to his son about why he chose to steal in the first place. Jim discovers his son is afraid of being sent away because the family can’t afford to keep him. The sensitive dad makes a promise that he will never send him away. On the surface, this might seem like a sappy movie moment, but because it’s played in for its hyper-realistic implications, we come away influenced.
Through these orbiting social interactions we become acquainted with a wrecked social milieu that, no matter how far from public memory, resonates as a terrible time in American life that could come around again. The politics of the era are depicted through Jim’s dock-worker friend Mike Wilson (played well by Paddy Considine), a former Wall Street broker who takes up a personal battle for social reform.
Braddock soon fights a desperate bout with a broken hand against heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran. The fight sends him in a downward spiral away from the only thing that he’s good at. By the time 1933 rolls around, Braddock fights so poorly that the boxing commission revokes his license to box.
As Jim goes to the Hoboken docks everyday to stand on line in hopes that he will be chosen for work, the filmmaker keeps musical scoring out of the way of the action. It’s a choice that Ron Howard makes throughout two thirds of the film to give the actors and story room to breathe. The silence works to underscore the resilience of characters who have nothing to buffer their exposed lives. The rhythm of the language an street sounds set the score for a distinctive brand of truth rarely evinced in Hollywood films.
In his darkest moment Jim receives emergency aid from the government before walking into the club where his former boxing manager congregates with the boxing commissioner to beg for money that will enable Jim to pay for electricity and heat. At a cost to his dignity, Jim reminds Gould of his desperation. He's rewarded with a bout that puts him back in the game.
Nobody does working-class-hero better than Russell Crowe. Here the Crowe works every angle of specificity to tell the story. Crowe keeps the audience acutely aware of Braddock’s dental condition that necessitates a roughhewn denture. This small but significant detail bonds the audience to Braddock’s side as he goes up against the heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko) who has left two opponents dead in the ring. The climatic bout of the film is an astonishing boxing sequence unforgettable for the way it draws on character traits to clinch a story about survival against all odds.
Rated PG-13. 144 mins. (A) (Five Stars)