Cinderella Man: Ron Howard’s Conventional Boxing Melodrama Starring Russell Crowe as James Braddock

Ron Howard’s boxing melodrama, “Cinderella Man” would have pleased movie audiences during the Depression years, when the story is set.

Stirring and inspirational in the best (and worst) sense of these terms, this fact-inspired melodrama celebrates two years in the life of heavyweight champion, James J. Braddock, or “Cinderella Man” (well played by Russell Crowe)

“Cinderella Man” is a straight populist melodrama made by a populist filmmaker. In the press notes, Howard says: “The Story of Jim Braddock continues to be so incredibly stirring, because it is a tale that reminds us of just how remarkable human endurance and the power of love can be.”

The movie opens with a statement by writer Damon Runyon, who reportedly said in 1936: “In all the history of the boxing game, you’ll find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock.” I could not agree more with the helmer and Runyon’s statements, but the question to be asked how good a movie “Cinderella Man” is I think viewers who are more receptive to sentimental formulas will view “Cinderella Man” as Capraesque, whereas more critical viewers will see it as Capracorn.

In the 1920s, Braddock is a New Jersey-based amateur, known for his fierce right hand. Like many working-class kids, Braddock saw boxing as his ticket to decent life. It was the only thing he was good at.

Braddock’s career began to shine when he was dubbed, “the Bulldog of Bergen,” for his unflinching tenacity that seemed to carry him through fights with far larger and stronger opponents. However, after sustaining damage to his badly broken right hand, his career began to slide downhill. In 1929, he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of light heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran, who beat him in a heartrending 15-round decision that touched off a seemingly endless string of bad luck and losses.

Braddock was never the same, and nor was the nation. That same year, the stock market crashed, and as the shockwave spread, American families from all walks of life lost their savings, their businesses, their homes and their farms. By 1932, nearly one in four Americans was unemployed.

When the local Boxing Commission forced him to retire by revoking his license, Braddock searched valiantly for any available job, though there were not many. He took hard-labor jobs in shipyards, hauling sacks or anything he could get. Braddock was making so little that, at one point, he was feeding a family of five on just $24 a month!

When the family could no longer afford the basicsmilk, gas, electricityBraddock applied for Relief. Crowe is excellent at showing how terrible this blow was to his pride, a secret shame that many men were experiencing across the country. Then, in a last-chance bid to help his family, Braddock returned to the rink. No one except his coach (A splendid Paul Giamatti) thought he has a shot. In bout after bout, the talk was that Braddock was criminally outmatched and perilously in over his head.

Fueled by somethingMoral Valuesbeyond competition, suddenly, he became the mythic athlete who could not lose. Carrying the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised, Braddock rocketed through the ranks.

The whole story builds toward the climactic sequence in which Braddock the underdog defies all the odds by choosing to do the irrational and unthinkable: Take on the heavyweight champion of the world. Many in the sports world warned that it was a potentially deadly match-up. For one thing, Braddock was much small than Max Baer, and for another, he was far less experienced and had to rely on his newfound left hook, favoring his formerly injured right.

The historical fight took place on June 13, 1935, in front of a packed crowd of 35,000 fans in Madison Square Garden. Millions of Americans huddled around their radios to hear the blow-by-blow commentary. Baer came on strong in the first few rounds, but Braddock was undeterred, fueled by one goal: fighting for his family’s survival and honor of its name.

Each time one fighter dominated the round, the crowds anticipated an early end to the fight, yet the opponent invariably rallied back. This nearly-impossible-to-call, give-and-take, battle continued for an unbelievable 15 rounds. Possessed by an unfailing spirit and pounding away with remarkable endurance, Braddock survived all 15, and finally won the fight in a unanimous decision.

The movie is meant to give hope to the underdog in the same way that was done by the horse melodrama “Seabiscuit,” which was also set during the Depression. You could say that “Cinderella Man” is the human equivalent of the horse saga.

The filmmakers perceive Braddock as unique among screen heroes, because he was not fighting for a cause or for a reputation, or even personal glory (as if all those are negative values). No, we are told time and again that Braddock was fighting in order to take care of his family, but milk for his hungry.

Consider the following dialogue between Braddock and his loving and supportive wife Mae (Rene Zellweger). “We ain’t got nothing left to sell,” Jim says, to which Mae offers, “We need to pack the kids.” This is, of course, unacceptable to Barddock as a father and a man, and hence, in one of many message speeches he says: “If we send them away, then all this has been for nothing. If we can’t stay together, that means we lost, that means we’re giving up.” In American filmsand culturethere is no such thing as giving up or quitting.

Technically, by standards of recent boxing movies, such as Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and Michael Man’s “Ali,” this picture’s boxing sequences are not particularly compelling or well shot. They also drag on; a whole reel is devoted to Braddock’s fight for the crown with Baer.

The movie is not just obvious and predictable in its formulaic structure; it’s also manipulative and shamelessly sentimental, emphasizing the hero’s nobility of spirit, rather than his gut and gumption.

What elevates “Cinderella Man” above its conventional screenplay, by Akiva Goldsman, is the craftsmanship and Russell Crow’s acting in the lead and Paul Giamatti in the supporting role. By now, having played a whistle blower in “The Insider,” a slave in “Gladiator,” a commander in “Master and Commander,” Crow has made the portrayal of man of uncluttered integrity and nobility of spirit his personal specialty.