Saturday, June 04, 2005

REVIEW: Cinderella Man

Let me get this out of the way first: Now that the "superhero" movie is a full-on part of the mainstream Hollywood genre quilt, it's time to reconsider the use of titles that end with the word "Man" for 'normal' movies. Yes, yes, I know that it's what the actual guy was nicknamed, but still... even having seen the film, I can't hear the uber-serious trailer naration solemnly intone "Russell Crowe IS... Cinderella Man" and not immediately picture some bizzaro-world cinematic image of Crowe, clad in some Neal Adams imagining of a pink ball gown and magical power-granting glass slippers leaping toward the screen amidst a pounding Hans Zimmer hero theme announcing the arrival of Cinderella Man to strike fear into the hearts of similarly-costumed evildoers. But that's just me.

And hey, y'know... Cinderella Man might even be a pretty amusing superhero in his own right, no? Think about it: His powers could only last until midnight, his car/jet/motorcycle/whatever could transform into a pumpkin, the Fairy Godmother could hang around for sage advice like Shazam does for Captain Marvel... hell, the whole secret-identity thing is even already right there in the story!

...or not. Aaaaaaanyway, regarding the actual movie:

You've probably seen the trailers, and you've probably heard the buzz, so then you probably already know the pitch: True-life story of how over-the-hill, down-and-out prizefighter James J. Braddock's amazing comeback was taken as an inspiration to fellow poor common-folk during the Great Depression. "Seabiscuit" for boxing. "Million Dollar Biscuit." You also, thusly, are aware that it's directed by Ron Howard, who's natural knack for telling these kinds of stories is immediately in it's favor even as his occasional tendency to overdose on sentimentality often makes such stories precariously-balanced as actual films.

Everyone's "genre acumen" is different, but most American filmgoers by now generally "know" what to expect from inspirational Great Depression movies: Gray, high-contrast exteriors and hazy, muddy hued interiors that serve to make the film look "authentic" (read: reminiscient of grainy photographs of the era that form our only remaining link to it,) plucky proletariates pontificating pugnaciously in exaggerated ethnic dialects (so that we remember that this takes place in the time before Italians, Irishmen and WASPs were grouped singularly as "white guys.")

Also making their mandatory appearance are cigars, breadlines, riots, unionizing, begrudging charity-accepting, kids playing in alleys, throwaway dialogue about shantytowns and Commies for the history teachers in the audience, and LOTS of tough-looking actors in wool caps modeling five o'clock shadows while stomping "determinedly" from place to place. And since it's additionally a boxing movie, you can bet the film remembers to meet it's quota of slow-motion, slow-claps, hushed crowds rising to their feet, bar patrons going wild during the radio broadcast and my personal favorite: Press conferences edited to the rythym of flashbulbs.

Just like no one is surprised anymore when a hand-held camera is employed in the midst of a war movie, no one should be surprised that the above genre-staples make up the bulk of "Cinderella Man's" technical side. What's surprising, and frequently delightful, is how expertly Howard has used nearly every trick in the Depression movie book to such full effect: Everything about the look and feel of the film is so cozy and comfortable that it immediately becomes "real" in a way that a more offbeat historical biopic couldn't be. It makes you feel like you've "been here" before, via the watching of previous films about and from the era, and in no time nearly all lingering vestiges of movie-ness vanish; Notions of soundstages and Russell Crowe give way to Madison Square Garden and Jim Braddock, and we're off to the races.

Those who take joy in pointing out that Howard is no kind of cinematic innovator consistently miss the point: What he is is a cinematic refiner. While the vanguards of the "film school generation" (sing it if you know it: Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, etc.) that shepherded his entry into the directing game are one-by-one settling into their "grownup" roles as auteurs, Howard remains Hollywood's ultimate sorceror's apprentice: The director-as-professional-student. His best films unspool as the sum-total of lessons learned about the genres, styles and techniques he works in; and "Cinderella Man" plays like his Master's Thesis on Depression-era underdog tales.

In the leads, Howard has assembled a top-tier cast that are all so profoundly well-suited to their roles that the very phrase "on the nose" seems far too loose to apply: Renee Zellwegger inhabits period dress and spits out lines with poverty-class spunk with a naturalism lately found only in British starlets. Paul Giamatti, always the best of character-actor sidekicks (even in films where he stars,) who needs only the proper hat to instantly "belong" in any historical era. And of course Russell Crowe, who's name immediately leaps to mind for the role of a hard-bitten Depression-era boxer who gains a punishing left hook from doing shipyard work one-handed for a damn good reason. If these folks weren't already such well-known talents, one could easily be forgiven the assumption that the filmmakers had cast the roles strictly on who most perfectly looked the part and got great actors as a bonus.

As with much of the film's technical mechanics, the actual arc of Braddock's story will come as little surprise to anyone who's seen an underdog boxing movie before; the fact that the tale has all the right beats of mythic familiarity is the reason a film was made out of it. This isn't a film that wants to surprise or shock from scene to scene, it mainly wants to direct our attention to the manner in which largely "innevitable" sequences play out: Instead of trying to turn the various decisions Braddock makes and the direction in which they drive the film into a succession of twists and "think about it" gotchas, we're invited to pause and consider the logic and personal morality that informs them.

(A lone, and I think necessary, exception to this occurs early in the 3rd act, in a scene where Braddock is shown fight footage of heavyweight champ Max Baer killing an opponent in the ring in order to discourage him from facing Baer for the title. As others avert their eyes, Braddock insists, stone-faced, on seeing the footage again and again. At first it appears the film is indulging in a moment of "Billy Jack"-style "this-guy-is-a-badass"-ery, but the eventual payoff is far more revealing and interesting. Trust me on that.)

The film does sport one curious thematic decision, bound to be it's most controversial element and possibly it's only serious semblance of a flaw, in it's presentation of heavyweight champ Max Baer as a showboating sadist. It's understandable that the film would require it's only human "villain" (the real "heavy" is, of course, the Great Depression itself.. but as Braddock says in the film "you can't fight stuff you can't see") to be a first-rate heel in order to properly offset the almost overwhelming goodness of it's hero. (Jim Braddock is the sort of biopic hero who "must" really have been like this, because no screenwriter would ever invent a character of such Job-like moral resolve and expect to be taken seriously.) But some have questioned, not without cause, if the Howard etc. have gone too far in turning Baer, a colorful figure with his own movie-ready tales of sports heroism behind him before the events of this film, into a more-or-less one dimensional bad guy.

Let it be said of the character that the filmmakers at least demonstrate a working awareness of the historical Baer's more nuanced qualities: The Jewish Star of David he had emblazzoned on his boxing trunks following a career-making takedown of a German champ touted by the emerging Nazi government as the embodiment of Aryan superiority remains intact (if not ever made an issue of) in the film, as does Baer's noted preference for celebrity and public-spectacle over actual pugilism (he wanted to be an actor, and eventually starred in several well-regarded boxing movies.) And actor Craig Beirko does a fine job of imbuing the character with flickers of greater depth than afforded by the screenplay or his relatively limited screentime.

NOTE: A few years back, Baer's match against the German champ was made into an HBO movie called "Joe & Max," which is an overlooked sports film in it's own right and makes a fine companion to "Cinderella Man." It's available on DVD.

What will remain the primary bone of contention over the character is the film's imagining of Baer taking a certain sadistic pleasure in having "killed" two opponents, the "extreme" end of his well-documented class-clown antics. Baer's real-life son, Max Baer Jr. (yes, Jethro from "Beverly Hillbillies") contends that his father's antics actually resulted from guilt at having taken a life in the ring. For me, it comes down to this: Giving more nuance to Baer as a character would probably have made "Cinderella Man" a better film, but choosing not to has not made it less of a good film.

Minor issues (issue, really) aside, this is a movie thats every bit as good as it so earnestly wants to be, and often times a lot better. Far and away the first solid awards-season contender of the Summer cycle, and very much worth your time. Reccomended.