By Madelyn M. Ritrosky-Winslow
Jim Braddock is one of those names from the past that sounds vaguely familiar.
If asked, I probably would have been able to identify him as a boxing champion. But names like that names that once were on everyone’s lips in an earlier era gradually fade to the history books of popular culture and remain alive in the enthusiasm of sports buffs.
Ditto Max Baer.
The heavyweight championship fight of June 13, 1935, when underdog Braddock took on Baer to become the champ, was one of those Depression-era events that got people cheering. That’s what Ron Howard’s film, Cinderella Man, does. Even though we know Jim Braddock
(Russell Crowe) is going to beat Baer (Craig Bierko), it’s the climactic scene of the film and we feel the tension, anticipation, and excitement.
The film weaves a slice of the Great Depression while giving us a portrait of an American folk hero. There are bits and pieces about the politics and economics of the time. The muted browns and grays of the film paint things as we might see them in our mind’s eye like the photographs and films of that era. I cannot help thinking of Frank Capra’s populist philosophy and underdog heroes of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Anyway, we follow Jim’s struggles, along with those of his wife, Mae Braddock (Renée Zellweger), as they try to provide for their three children and keep their family together during the depths of the Depression.
They are pretty much at rock bottom after Braddock’s early success. Those happier, more financially stable times are covered in a relatively brief opening scene before the film pans ahead five years to his forced removal from boxing as a washed-up has-been. That was 1933.
The Braddocks have a loving relationship and Zellweger does a good job with the role, playing the supportive but anxious wife. We know her fears are well-founded when he decides he will fight the champion, even though Max Baer had killed two men in the ring. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Manager, trainer, and friend Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti in another winning role) helps him do it by lining up his comeback fights and by selling his own furniture to allow Jim to train.
Like so many film bios about “great names,” it’s the great man the film is most interested in. And Russell Crowe gives us the boxing champion, folk hero, and determined, honorable family man who not only inspired many, including Damon Runyon who coined the label Cinderella Man, but
did so with integrity in hard times. If his integrity wasn’t already clear in the film (and it is), we get what seems then a stereotypical “bad-guy” opponent in the characterization of Max Baer. I don’t have a clue what Baer was like in real life, but this feels pretty one-dimensional.
Overall, it’s a good movie. It runs long at 154 minutes and probably could have been cut back a bit, but it doesn’t drag it’s well-balanced between family life and the boxing ring.