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Cinderella Man Review

By Shawn McKenzie 06/04/2005

It only comes a few times a year before November or December, but sometimes a movie arrives that screams “Oscar bait.”  The first movie of 2005 that I thought had real Oscar potential was Crash, and now I think that Cinderella Man will be the second one.  While I had a couple of problems with the former movie, I couldn’t find a single thing wrong with this one.

In 1928 in Bergen County, N.J., James J. “Jim” Braddock (Russell Crowe) is a prizefighter who has just defeated Tuffy Griffiths to win $15,000.  After giving his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) his cut, he pockets $8000 to take home to his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and their three kids, Jay (Connor Price), Rosemarie (Ariel Waller), and Howard (Patrick Louis) to their nice New Jersey home.  Life is good and everyone is happy, even though Mae refuses to watch his fights (watching him get hit feels like she is getting hit herself.)  Cut to 1933, and the country is in the midst of the Great Depression, where 15 million Americans are unemployed.  Jim is just one of the millions of people who have hit hard times, having lost his money in the stock market crash (he had sunk all of his money in stocks himself), and his family is forced to move into a basement apartment.  To make ends meet, he fights in $50 bouts, but with a busted right hand, his bouts end up being a no contest.  After a no contest fight with Abe Feldman (Julian Lewis), promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) revokes Jim’s boxing license.  With a broken hand and a pile of bills, Jim looks for work on the Jersey docks (a job that isn’t always guaranteed day after day) and befriends a fellow dock worker named Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), a former broker who thinks unions are the way to go, because he doesn’t believe President Roosevelt will do anything.  His kids have to eat fried bologna, and after the electricity is turned off due to overdue bills, there is a danger of them dying from the cold.  Despite promising his kids that he will never send them away, Mae sends them to live with her sister Alice (Alicia Johnston.)  Jim goes on welfare, which only gives him $19…not enough to turn on the electricity and get his kids back.  He has to swallow his pride and ask for money from the people in the office of the Boxing Commission to get him over this one hump.  Finally, Joe comes back to offer Jim a one-time-only bout.  The number two boxer in the world, John “Corn” Griffin (Art Binkowski), needs a last minute contender, and he offers Jim the bout.  It won’t mean that he will get his license back, but he will get $250, so he takes the fight.  Joe gives Jim $175 from the promoters to get him back into shape, even though the money secretly came from Joe, after selling off most of his and his wife Lucille’s (Linda Kash) furniture.  Jim kicks Griffin’s butt, and Johnston reinstates his license (after a little persuasion from Joe), which allows Jim to win bout after bout.  After Jim’s bouts with John Henry Lewis (Troy Ross) and Art Lasky (Mark Simmons), sports reporter Sporty Lewis (Nicholas Campbell) reports about the “Cinderella Man” (even though sports reporter Damon Runyon had named him that.)  Sporty suggests a fight between Jim and the heavyweight champ of the world Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who has already killed two opponents in the ring.  Jim sees a fight between Baer and Primo Carnera (Matthew G. Taylor) and a filmstrip of Baer killing Frankie Campbell in the ring, but he still envisions this bout as his shot at the title.  Mae and Joe worry that Jim will die too, but for everyone else, Jim becomes a symbol of strength for others, like the people who pray for him in Father Rorick’s (Chuck Shamata) church.

Everything clicks with this movie, expertly written by Cliff Hollingsworth (with help from Akiva Goldsman) and directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard (who had won for the 2001 Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind.)  Crowe, famous for his real life temper, effectively pulls off a nice guy underdog character in Jim.  It was so refreshing, because I was prepared to see Jim go violent and nuts, like Considine’s character Mike.  Probably the best scene was when Baer insults Mae and does some trash-talking, prompting Mae to throw water in Baer’s face.  When he asks Jim if Mae has to do his fighting for him, Jim says something like how she is something else, making Baer fume up.  On his sensitive side, there is a scene where he tells Rosemarie that he is already full from steaks from after one of his bouts, so she should go ahead and eat the last of the fried bologna (even though he had actually not eaten anything.)  Zellweger shines once again as Jim’s supportive but nervous-for-Jim wife.  Giamatti will get an Oscar nomination this time, after being denied one for 2003’s American Splendor and last year’s Sideways.  He was a great sport recently while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in a sketch that had people not recognizing him, but after this role and his future Oscar nod, he will be a household name.

The fight choreography and cinematography were excellent.  It felt like the audience was seeing the fight through Jim’s eyes…especially when he had been hit and was feeling a little dizzy.  The camera would purposely blur the shot, making it look like how it would look if your vision were a little impaired.

Even though I knew how the Braddock/Baer fight was going to end, Howard filmed it in a way that made it feel edge-of-your-seat exciting.  You are almost biting your fingernails thinking that there is a possibility that Jim won’t win, which for me is good filmmaking.

I have to yet again pull out the old excuse that the only reason why Cinderella Man wouldn’t be nominated for an Oscar is because it is being released in June.  Typically, Oscar-nominated movies are released in November or December.  Fortunately, in the movie’s favor, is the precedent of A Beautiful Mind (with the same Oscar-winning team) and Seabiscuit (which was another underdog sports movie, released in July of 2003, which went on to be nominated for Best Picture.)  As I said earlier, I couldn’t find anything wrong with the movie.  I did read about reports that Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (a.k.a. Jethro Bodine from “The Beverly Hillbillies”), is upset that Howard portrayed his dad as an evil bloodthirsty villain.  I don’t that will take anything away from the movie (like it didn’t when John Nash in Mind was portrayed somewhat inaccurately.)  This movie is very inspiring for the audience, and not just for the supporters of Jim in the movie.  If this contender can fight against those odds, then maybe it will take the Oscar title.

Get the soundtrack score composed by Thomas Newman:

Get the book by Jeremy Schaap about the bout between James Braddock and Max Baer:

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