Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Russell Crowe……….Jim Braddock
Renee Zellweger……….Mae Braddock
Connor Price……….Jay Braddock
Paul Giamatti……….Joe Gould
Craig Bierko………..Max Baer
Fulvio Cecere……….Referee Johnny McAvoy
Nick Alachiotis……….Max Baer’s Cornerman
Darrin Brown……….Boxing Promoter
When it comes to boxing, Jim Braddock is more of a footnote of a World Champion than someone who is generally well-known by the public like a Lennox Lewis, Muhammad Ali or George Foreman. While his rise from the ashes of an ending career and subsequent dramatic upset of Max Baer are almost too good to be true, Braddock is unfortunately remembered more as the guy who the immortal Joe Louis defeated for the heavyweight championship of the world than as a real-life tale of a triumphant underdog.
And as an underdog, one can only think of the movie Rocky when it comes to boxing, or sports in general, as Sylvester Stallone’s immortal everyman is the sort of hero that almost every kind of underdog tale is based off of. And when you have a movie about an underdog who boxes the first last and only comparison you make is to Rocky Balboa. And that is a challenge for any actor, but especially for one in the situation that Russell Crowe is in.
In Cinderella Man, Crowe takes up the story of Braddock’s rise from the depths of the Depression to his fight with Max Baer (Craig Bierko). But this isn’t a boxing movie per se; much like last year’s Academy Award winner Million Dollar Baby, this movies is much more about a boxer than it is about boxing. But the darkness that prevails over the Clint Eastwood directed movie is the opposite of the light that shines from Ron Howard’s latest opus.
And what a magnificent movie Cinderella Man is. Howard has a lot working against him with the underdog formula but he manages to take it and make it one of the movie’s strengths. He manages to take a rather restricting formula and craft a remarkable story with it. Braddock is an underdog, for sure, but even with the world against him we never feel sorry for him. There’s a fine line between feeling bad for someone and feeling sorry for them; the former can make you get behind someone and the latter generally leaves you bored. Braddock is given a sense of purpose, likeability and nobility that is easily identifiable.
Braddock isn’t a loser given another chance because people feel sorry for him; he’s a guy who does the right things time and time again. It feels like his reward for being a good person and for living a good life as opposed to just a mere handout. But it takes more than quality direction to showcase a hero. It takes a quality hero. And Russell Crowe is that hero.
Crowe’s performance as Braddock is sensational. Given Howard’s story-telling it would seem almost easy for anyone to step into Braddock’s shoes and do a good enough job. Crowe steps into his skin and breathes the air in. Braddock is a noble man who wants to provide for his family; he’s a man who has never given up and still tries to provide for his family in every way possible.
For every good hero there is a sidekick, and Paul Giamatti’s Joe Gould is as good as they come. As Braddock’s right hand man and biggest supporter, Giamatti portrays Gould with a sort of muted strength hard to replicate. He has to be a man down on his luck and yet too proud to display it. He is the movie’s comic relief as well, providing some well-timed zingers when appropriate.
And behind every great man is a great woman; in this case it’s Renee Zellweger as Braddock’s wife Mae. Mae compliments James much like Adrian complimented Rocky. Zellweger manages to be the softer side of the relationship while bringing her own sort of strength to the equation. Her chemistry with Crowe is unforced and natural; the emotions she displays are genuine. Mae cares about the well-being of her husband and not just their bank account.
Besides the quality story and great acting, Cinderella Man is an absolutely beautiful-looking film. Ron Howard is able to take Depression-era New Jersey and duplicate it in both look and feel. The scenery and the movie’s look have a certain gloom to it that is absorbing. On one hand it is wholly depressing to see the landscape in its state, but at the same time Howard photographs it so well that it is enveloping.
In an era where underdog stories have reached the point of almost self-parody, Howard and Crowe have combined to make a movie that is filled with heart, soul and a bit of the sort of magic that all great movies share. Cinderella Man is a masterpiece, pure and simple.