Cinderella Man is the first movie of 2005 to have multiple Oscar nomination contingencies thanks to an expertly acted and directed script. Russell Crowe brings his talents to bear as Jim Braddock, a Depression-era family man and boxer who keeps his priorities straight in the face of unrelenting social and personal turmoil. Renee Zellweger rises to the acting challenge opposite Crowe as Jim’s wife Mae who provides a stable if worried guardian of familial wellbeing.
But it’s Paul Giamatti (Sideways) who glues the story together as Joe Gould, Jim’s commendable boxing manager who guides his accomplished boxer through every fight. Ron Howard (The Missing) utilizes the music of silence to underscore the deeply felt movie based on real-life boxing underdog James J. Braddock. The boxing sequences here are better than those of Martin Scorsese’s bar-setting Raging Bull.
Cinderella Man has an inverted narrative structure beginning on a high note then immediately pulling the rug out so we feel as if we’re watching a third act in the second. When we meet Braddock it’s during the highlife of the Roaring ‘20s and the workaday boxer returns to his loving wife in their large New Jersey home with a wad of cash and wearing a suit disguising the ferocious battle he’s just won in the ring.
Cut to 1929 when Jim and his wife are living in a basement apartment with barely any money for electricity or food for their three small children. Jim’s son Jay (Connor Price) steals salami from a local deli and the prudent father goes with the boy to return the meat to the shop owner. Instead of reprimanding Jay, the humiliated father talks to his son about why he chose to steal in the first place.
Jim discovers that his son is afraid of being sent away because the family can’t afford to keep him. The sensitive father makes a promise to his child that he will never send him away. On the surface this might seem like a sappy movie moment, but because it’s played in for its hyper-realistic implications, we come away influenced by the predicament.
It’s through these orbiting social interactions that we become acquainted with a wrecked social milieu that, no matter how far from public memory, resonates as a terrible time in American life that could yet come again. The politics of the era are depicted through Jim’s dockworker friend Mike Wilson (played well by Paddy Considine), a former Wall Street broker who takes up a personal battle for social reform.
Braddock soon fights a desperate bout against heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran that sends him in a downward spiral away from the only thing he knows. By the time 1933 rolls around Braddock fights so poorly that the boxing commission revokes his boxing license.
As Jim goes to the Hoboken docks everyday to stand on line for work, director Howard keeps music out of the way of the action. It’s a choice Howard makes throughout easily two thirds of the film, and it gives the actors and story room to breathe in the dusty air of the Depression. The silence works to underscore the resilience of characters who have nothing to buffer their exposed lives. The rhythm of the language and the street sounds set the score for a distinctive brand of truth that’s rarely evinced in modern Hollywood films.
In his darkest moment Jim receives emergency aid from the government before walking into the club where his former boxing manager and boxing commissioner congregate. At a cost to his dignity Jim reminds Gould of his desperation and is soon rewarded with a bout that puts him back in the ring.
Nobody does working-class-hero better than Russell Crowe. He keeps the audience acutely aware of Braddock’s dental condition that necessitates a roughhewn denture. This small but significant detail bonds the audience to Braddock’s side as he goes up against the heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko) who has left two opponents dead in the ring. The climatic bout of the film is an astonishing boxing sequence that’s unforgettable for the way it draws on character traits to clinch a story about survival against all odds. MTW