It’s just a boxing match. It’s just two men, one ring, and four fists, over and over. But just beyond the ropes, barely beyond where sweat and fists fly, sit a dozen suspendered sportswriters and slippery tongued sportscasters.
They scribble and shout. They name men for their guts and glories—The Brockton Blockbuster, The Bronx Bull. The stories are written and read and retold. They ripple up wooden bleachers at Madison Square Garden, through cigar smoke and under hat brims. A name becomes a chant and a boxing match becomes more than a boxing match.
The story of the underdog boxer has been told before, the punches thrown a thousand times, but the best storytellers turn each combination of the same punches into a distinct memory, finding the battle and the mettle in each man. That’s what Ron Howard has done in “Cinderella Man,” based on the true story of the Bulldog of Bergen, N.J.—James J. Braddock.
The story of James J. Braddock is a familiar one, even if you’ve never heard the name. It’s the American sports story. Russell Crowe vanishes behind the bloody mouthguard and taped wrists of an Irish boxer at the top of his career, a successful middleweight known for his powerful right and his potential.
The movie moves from the bright lights of a headline fight at Madison Square Garden four years into the future, to a brick-walled basement apartment in Depression-Era New Jersey.
By 1933, Braddock’s right hand is perpetually broken and he’s best known for peaking too early. Between an occasional fight and a shift at the docks, Braddock keeps his wife Mae, played by Renee Zellweger, and three kids fed on fried baloney. But when the bills go unpaid and a New Jersey winter without electricity threatens the health of two of Braddock’s kids, Mae sends them to live with relatives.
Weighing the shame of having to go on public assistance against his desperation to be there for his kids—two emotions not often seen or applauded in Hollywood’s portrayal of American men these days— Crowe chooses public assistance. He later pays back the public assistance in full. When asked why, he says, “we live in a great country. A country great enough to help a man out when he’s in trouble…I had a run of bad luck, but now I’m back in the black.”
Then his loyal manager, played by Paul Giamatti of recent “Sideways” acclaim, gets him a one-time shot at boxing again—a chance to go up against a championship contender when “Corn” Griffin’s opponent backs out at the last minute. Reporter Sporty Lewis taunts Braddock with his already-written lead—“The only time Jimmy Braddock was seen on his feet last night was on the walk from the locker room to the ring.”
But Braddock’s right is now accompanied by a longshoreman’s left and a proud man’s need to provide for his family. As Braddock later says in an interview, “Now I know what I’m fighting for.” His win over Griffin puts him on a course to meet champion Max Baer, who has already killed two boxers by “dislocating their brains.”
The fight scenes are gritty and exciting, often seen from Crowe’s blurred perspective as he lopes around the ring and grins through his mouthguard. But Crowe and the movie’s writers Akiva Goldman and Cliff Hollingsworth commendably and tenderly make Braddock into a family man who is a fighter, not a fighter with a family.
In between fights, Crowe shares surprising, sweet, funny moments with all three children and Mae—bright spots in lives lived just blocks from the bread line and mere miles from Hooverville. Crowe and Zellweger share moments of love, heat and desperation born from a shared fight for their family. Zellweger, one of few actresses who takes the time and energy to nail any accent she’s handed, gives humor and vigor to what could have been a bland, stand-by-your-man routine. Instead of sacrificing the female character to make a statement about the lack of women’s rights, as many period films do, “Cinderella Man” gives Zellweger a chance to be a complex and powerful woman without shortchanging history.
The bare lightbulbs, dirty snow, and patched clothing paint a vivid picture of 1930s America. You can hear the bleachers creak at Madison Square Garden and almost taste the hash Braddock eats as his pre-bout meal.
This story has been told before—an underdog athlete who embodies the hopes and dreams of a down-on-its-luck community in an unlikely bid for an unlikely championship. But James J. Braddock lived it—the American sports story. And he earned the right to have the story told again, this time for him, and told well. “Cinderella Man” does that.