"I'm all prayed out," says Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man (which opens Friday, June 3, at the Guild 45 and other theaters). Perhaps this is why he avoided the murky and inconclusive religious passions of Kingdom of Heaven, for which director Ridley Scott originally tried to recruit Crowe, but had to settle for girly-man Orlando Bloom. Well, he was right to skip church. Working for Ron Howard— as Crowe previously did with their Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind—means there will be unambiguous lines drawn between right and wrong, good and evil, and families that stick together through hard times versus the other kind that must've existed during the Great Depression, but which Howard is too squeamish to dwell on. (His flirtation with the uglier side of human behavior seems to have begun and ended with Ransom.)
Prayers won't help title-contending boxer Jim Braddock (Crowe), the "Bulldog of Bergen, N.J.," who breaks his right hand in the ring soon after losing his fortune in the Crash of '29. His prize winnings sink from $8,000 to $50 a bout. All he's got left are his three small kids and loyal, indomitable wife, Mae. She's played by Renée Zellweger, whose Cold Mountain Oscar means she's faced harder circumstances than these. Although no roosters need killing or fields plowing in this picture, she's the kind of woman you want in your corner, along with manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), even after once-proud Jim is reduced to seeking unemployment relief.
Braddock happens to be a real historical figure, and Cinderella Man basically follows an uplifting, improbable, but true story that perfectly fits the Howard formula of goodness overcoming adversity. The phrase "Cinderella Man" actually comes from Damon Runyon, who knew and wrote about Braddock. Though Howard clearly loves the hats, lingo, and Runyonesque '30s milieu, his guys and dolls aren't particularly colorful or flamboyant. For him, as usual, it's all about the family. "If we can't stay together, that means we're lost," says Jim, even as the Braddocks huddle together in an unheated basement apartment, one son coughing like Camille. No matter how dark it is outside, the home fires are kept burning.
Trying for a little social relevance, Howard shows us the breadlines and alludes to the headlines. He even adds a token angry radical/deadbeat/alcoholic, Mike (Paddy Considine), a friend of Jim's who declares, "The government has dropped us flat. We need to organize." Decent, apolitical Jim responds that he still believes in FDR—not strikes or agitators. The politics here are like the mathematics in A Beautiful Mind: something abstract that Howard doesn't understand or care about, but feels compelled to mention. (Yes, there was a Hooverville encampment in Central Park where violent riots took place. But were the cops to blame? Let's not go there.)
And yet the film, however predictable, is tremendously well made in a predictable, Ron Howard kind of way. The photography (by Salvatore Totino) is appropriately dark, as if they couldn't afford lights. From the title alone, you know the plot doesn't require much embellishment, and Howard generally resists the urge to underline key points. (Granted, in the fight scenes, in case we've forgotten Jim is risking his neck to feed his family, Howard helpfully intersperses snapshots and X-rays between punches.) Cinderella Man isn't a great boxing movie like The Set-Up or Raging Bull, but it's certainly on par with Million Dollar Baby—and perhaps better, given the absence of Morgan Freeman's dull-ass narration. The most interesting character, Craig Bierko's vicious yet funny heavyweight champ Max Baer, suggests an entirely different movie that Howard, of course, would never make.
Crowe might not have been able to save Kingdom of Heaven, but judging by his performance here, there aren't many movies he couldn't save. That he's an extraordinary actor has been obvious to American audiences since Romper Stomper. He's most powerful when beaten—a strong man made weak, groveling and begging from his old boxing buddies for the $18.38 he needs to pay the back electricity bill. Eyes burning with shame, he literally passes the hat in a period when "spare change" really meant something—not just for some crack or Thunderbird. He also looks the part of a Depression-era brawler; you could imagine him working opposite John Garfield or Victor McLaglen. Both he and Bierko are physically powerful yet lumpy in the ring—like real palookas, not ab-sculpted Chippendale's dancers or gay porn actors.
Also nailing the period vibe is Giamatti, whose buoyant, excitable presence is like an acting seminar on how many different ways you can say "son of a bitch!" (Truculent, astonished, admiring, angry, purposeful, hurt, gloating, joyous . . . I lost count.) The movie is more a love story between Jim and Joe than between Mae and Jim—odd, since a star like Zellweger can usually have a part fattened up to suit her billing. ("You're everybody's hope," she tells Crowe in her big speech. "And you're the champion of my heart." Awww—it's enough to give you Civil War flashbacks.) On the other hand, maybe that's reason to admire her: because she didn't. Since White Oleander, I'm liking her more and more in supporting roles. Regardless, as with his old American Graffiti director George Lucas, Howard has never been too strong with women's parts—they're just helpmeets to male suffering.
WHEN JIM GOES to work during his forced retirement from boxing (which fortuitously strengthens his weak left hand because his right is in a cast), it's on the Hoboken docks of On the Waterfront. Clearly this is no accident; Crowe even brandishes Brando's stevedore's hook, which doesn't seem sacrilegious at all. Along with Sean Penn, he's in that league as an actor. What I wish, however, is that Howard would take a bigger view, like Elia Kazan, and move beyond the sanctity of family. The Great Depression didn't end with a single punch.
Cinderella Man argues that by the time Braddock faced champion Baer in 1935, all working-class America was rooting for its heroic underdog on the radio. It's a nostalgia for a class solidarity—and a class— almost gone today. Working-class now means McDonald's and Wal-Mart—silly aprons, zero dignity, no health benefits. How can a minimum-wage cashier identify with a dockworker, a data-entry clerk with a pugilist? Few movies, like The Good Girl and Office Space, actually depict the diminished reality of the modern workplace.
For now, Howard seems content to sell a reassuring American fantasy—that even on the ropes, a guy can still control his fate with his hands.