One of the satisfying things about Cinderella Man, as entertaining and uplifting a film as we'll get all year, is the physique of the boxers at the center of this story of perseverance and triumph. Russell Crowe opted for old school in his prep for his role as James J. Braddock, the light heavyweight who in 1935 defied impossible odds to wrest the world championship from Max Baer. The actor worked the bag, skipped rope and sparred, concentrating on endurance and technique rather than body sculpting. He looks like a man who developed his strength moving freight on the New Jersey docks, not pumping iron at the spa, evoking a time when professional athletes kept their day jobs.
Everything about Cinderella Man is a throwback, the movie an appealing mix of Damon Runyon and Howard Hawks, grounded in realism but unapologetically sentimental. Ron Howard isn't the most agile director in the ring, but he knows how to build suspense, and he smartly keeps the fight scenes bearably bloody. (The legendary Angelo Dundee, who managed Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, served as the film's boxing consultant with choreographers Nick Powell and Steve Lucescu.) Screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, who worked with Howard on A Beautiful Mind, and Cliff Hollingsworth stick close to the real story, embellishing the drama with one subplot that highlights the hardships of the 1930s and, conveniently, the admirable qualities of Braddock.
Not that Braddock needed help from Hollywood. A working-class Irishman who parleyed a powerful right into a meal ticket, the Bulldog of Bergen, as he was known in his home town, fought his way to a shot at the light-heavyweight title against Tommy Loughran in 1929. He lost a bruising 15-round decision, handicapped by a broken hand that wouldn't heal. His hand got worse and he lost more bouts, prompting the boxing commission to revoke his license even as the Great Depression wiped out his investments. Braddock returned to the shipyards and, swallowing his pride, signed up for public assistance.
In 1934, his luck changed. Added to a card as a last-minute substitute opponent for John "Corn" Griffin, he should have fallen early. Instead, Braddock won easily in the third round, benefiting from a surprise left hand strengthened from hauling sacks on and off ships. He won his next two fights as well, defeating John Henry Lewis and Art Lasky, both heavily favored, and earning a match with Baer. The reigning champ was younger, heavier and meaner-he had killed two men in the ring, one with a single punch, another with a sustained beating- and Braddock vs. Baer became one of the most anticipated bouts of the century, the ten-to-one underdog adopted by downtrodden Americans as their personal hero, their symbol of hope, their "Cinderella Man," as Runyon dubbed him in his sports column.
Crowe's Braddock lives up to the legend, although Howard presents him as an ordinary guy just trying to feed his family. He wears threadbare undershirts and his smile reveals missing teeth, but he's uncompromisingly honest, fiercely loyal, and quietly patriotic at a time when Americans questioned the values of a nation that seemed to have abandoned them. Sure, it's schmaltz. Braddock is so considerate, so humble, one wonders where he got the urge to put on the gloves. But in our era of cinematic cynicism, he's a welcome change from the dismal portrayals of flawed and conflicted characters.
Renée Zellweger as Braddock's wife, Mae, is Crowe's perfect sparring partner, a woman able to take life's punches without complaint. She never loses faith in her husband, even when he loses his home and savings. (At one point, Braddock is obliged to beg for spare change in the toney boxing club where he once was cheered.) Howard again dispenses with ambiguity-no recriminations here, barely a marital spat-so when he asks his audience to suspend disbelief, it's not about David bringing down Goliath, but Mae unselfishly propping up Jim.
To allay any doubts on this matter, the screenwriters exercised creative license by inventing a fictional couple, Mike and Sara Wilson (Paddy Considine and Rosemarie DeWitt), to serve as counterpoint to Jim and Mae. Their less successful struggle to survive allows Howard to film a riot in Central Park's Hooverville and address the politics of the period, Jim being a Wall Street financier wiped out by the market crash. Whatever quibbles historians might take with this aspect of Cinderella Man, and Howard is predictably even-handed, the director does take liberties with his portrayal of Baer (Craig Bierko). The film's villain is a vulgarian, but the real Baer was more clown than killer. He also was a pretty good guy himself, donating the proceeds of several fights to the families of the boxers who died facing him. In addition, he anticipated the future of professional sports by cashing in on his celebrity as an actor, starring in Hawks' The Prizefighter and the Lady (opposite Myrna Loy) in 1933, the first of 20 movies he made. (His son, Max Baer, Jr., would play Jethro in TV's "Beverly Hillbillies.")
Cinderella Man should garner its share of Oscar nominations in any number of categories, but the real comeback kid in the story may be Paul Giamatti, who plays Joe Gould, Braddock's manager. Giamatti, egregiously snubbed by the Academy for his superb performance in Sideways (not to mention his turn as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor), isn't convincing as a corner man during the fight scenes, but he is endearing as Braddock's sidekick, and like his boxer, he will have the sympathy of the nation behind him when this year's ballots are printed. Hopefully, he will get his moment in the spotlight, too.