DVD Review Of Cinderella Man

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/20/06


  As a boy, I recall watching with my dad an old sports show, perhaps on PBS, in which the participants of a certain event, years later, commented the events as they were shown on film. I believe it was a Bud Greenspan show, and there I saw such classic moments as the Dempsey-Tunney Long Count, the Ali-Liston Shadow Punch, Willie Mays’ over the shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series off of Vic Wertz’s bat, and others, including a show on the boxers of the Great Depression, where I first saw such fighters as Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, Max Baer, and James J. Braddock, subject of Ron Howard’s 2005 film Cinderella Man.

  There are numerous problems with this film, starting with Ron Howard’s being a mediocrity. His camera work, his lack of understanding of story structure, and the dearth of poetry from his films, make him a younger, balder Steven Spielberg, because only Howard rival’s Spielberg’s cast iron stomach for indulging sentimental drivel, and this film, like his other projects with potential (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), is totally castrated by Howard’s inability to see life’s variegations. The film that this most recalls are not fight films from that era, like Jimmy Cagney in City For Conquest nor Kirk Douglas in Champion, but Martin Scorsese’s 1980 classic Raging Bull, about the life of ex-middleweight champion Jake La Motta. With one exception, where La Motta was undisciplined evil, Braddock (Russell Crowe) is shown as an All-American force for triumph over adversity. Yet, given that this tale is based in reality, the fact that it is rather unmoving, in comparison with Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film Rocky, says a lot of Howard’s shortcomings as an artist, not the least of which are that the few fight scenes in the film are not nearly as good as those in the Scorsese film, although Howard does try to make the putative villain of the film, Heavyweight Champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), look amazingly like Robert De Niro’s La Motta.

  Now, I am no stickler for historical accuracy when it comes to dramatizations, but there are limits that this film exceeds. While there’s no doubt that Jim Braddock was a great and heroic story and figure, including the legendary returning of relief money he got during the Great Depression, plus interest, Howard does a great disservice to the real Baer (yes, father of Max Baer, Jr. from The Beverly Hillbillies tv show of the 1960s), who was not the philandering vulgarian the film portrays. First off, neither Baer nor Braddock were ever considered great fighters, just two of a string of bums spanning the great heavyweight era of the 1920s (with champs Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney) and the colossal reign of Joe Louis, and while Baer did kill a guy in the ring, Frank Campbell- not two, as the film implies, he was a sensitive man, so wracked with guilt that he put the dead boxer’s kids through college. Of course, having two decent men and mediocre fighters won’t sell a movie, so Baer became fearsome in the ring and out. Yet, I’ll bet were Howard to have  filmed the Max Baer story he’d have made Braddock a drunk, rowdy bogtrotter!

  This two and a half hour film could have easily been an hour twenty and not lost a thing. Braddock is a good fighter, the Depression and injuries ruin his life, he and his family suffer, then he gets a break, and wins the title from Baer. Don’t expect any great performances her. The acting is 101 level, replete with bad and forced New Jersey accents from Crowe, Renee Zellwegger as his wife Mae, and Paul Giamatti as his manager Joe Gould. What saves the film from sinking to the depths of last year’s Oscar winning bomb Million Dollar Baby is that the actual true tale is a good one that even Howard cannot totally sink. But, it could have been so much more. In the hands of a real director with vision we would not have had Zellwegger weeping at the drop of a hat, nor the dripping sentiment and forced non-chemistry between her and Crowe, nor the relentless didacticism that drips from the hack work of ex-actors turned directors, like Howard and Clint Eastwood. Howard has never met a complex dramatic situation that he could not reduce to harsh blacks and soft whites. Max Baer is a bad guy, who makes rude comments about Mae, the depression was so bad that the milkman left PAST DUE notices with the milk, etc.
  The problem, though, seems to have been entirely with the creatively bankrupt trio of Crowe, Howard, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who also butchered A Beautiful Mind), for in the DVD features, we get three commentary tracks, by Howard and Goldsman, which basically show how little Howard knows of narrative and how reliant he is on test screening audiences for what they like, rather than what is good (assuming he could even tell such), and how much he needs to asskiss his actors. The commentary by Goldsman shows how little of anything he has to say, but, the third track is from Cliff Hollingsworth, who knew many of the principals involved, as well the sport of boxing, and wrote the original treatment and screenplay of the film in 1995 then called The Cinderella Man, and he painstakingly details virtually every negative change the other three made to his script- not with bitterness, but the detachment of a man who’s seen a living creation of his laying dead in a field. We find out that the scene of Baer finding out he was to fight Braddock was really in a restaurant, with a reporter, not in a hotel room where Baer was in a sexual threesome. What a bad man! We also find out that Braddock didn’t return to his work as a stevedore the day after his first comeback fight. What a good man! I swear, that original film idea by Hollingsworth could have rivaled Raging Bull, because it seemed far more fact-based, realistic, and dramatic, with none of the tearjerker moments Howard swills in, such as the ridiculously mawkish sidestory of a fictional Braddock pal, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), who ends up crushed by the Depression. There is a pointless segment with Howard, and others involved in the film, sitting down to watch the last round of the Baer-Braddock fight with Norman Mailer, who pontificates and adds not a blessed thing of interest, save to stroke his ego. The other featurettes and trailers are standard issue, but I’d recommend the features just so you can hear Hollingsworth destroy the three people who destroyed his screenplay, although he does it so calmly and precisely that I doubt Howard nor the others listened to it. That Howard let the track be in the DVD has to be that he never listened to it, lest he would not have allowed Hollingsworth to detail his total lack of filmic comprehension.

  Yet, the truth is that Cinderella Man is a mediocre film, with one dimensionalized caricatures all around, and is only saved from trash by good cinematography and the true and great aspects of a story that even a mawkmeister like Ron Howard couldn’t destroy, such as wholly undermining the climactic final bout by breaking away to show a worried Mae wringing her hands and tear ducts. Let me think- what other great film scenarios could Howard ruin? How about Moby-Dick, where Ahab sees the whale is just an animal, and lets it roam the seas in peace? Or, maybe Howard could tackle War And Peace, but stick to just the Peace side? Oh, to be back with my dad, watching that sports trivia show, when the moment ruled, and the only thing after it all was memory, not regurgitated revisionism.

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