He’s the Bulldog of Bergen, the Pride of New Jersey, the Hope of the Irish: James J. Braddock, has-been, might-have-been, and struggling breadwinner. As Russell Crowe portrays this real-life figure from the Depression era in Cinderella Man, he lopes down the sidewalk with his eyebrows tented in mild surprise and his mouth hanging slightly ajar. This Cinderella still has dust behind his ears.
Braddock is no ball of fire. He’s not motivated by a passion for boxing, like Maggie in last fall’s hit, Million Dollar Baby. He doesn’t even have the horsy competitiveness of Seabiscuit, subject of Hollywood’s last inspirational-underdog-of-the-Depression venture. If Braddock is an underdog, he wears it well: He’s doglike in his loyalty, gentleness, and nobility of spirit. When life gives him a kick in the pants, he accepts it uncomplainingly; When it tosses him a bone, he’s sincerely grateful.
How grateful is shown by a scene midway through. Things have gotten so tough for Jim and his wife Mae (Renee Zellwegger) that they can no longer keep their three children at home; without money for grocery and heating bills, the kids are getting sick. (In an earlier scene, we had seen Mae stretching a bottle of milk by adding water.) The children are farmed out to live with extended family. Regretfully, Braddock goes down to the relief office and signs up for the dole so he can bring them home. But then he wins a fight, and returns to the same office. He plops down a roll of bills in front of the cashier. Later, when a reporter asks him about this, he shrugs it off. “This is a great country, a country that helps a man when he’s in trouble. I thought I should return it.”
It’s exactly this mildness, this simplicity, that makes Cinderella Man such a knockout. Director Ron Howard controls the elements so masterfully that the film is deeply emotionally satisfying. In itself, the story was dangerously sweet: one-time promising boxer slips from the spotlight, then gets another chance, and, fighting to save his family from poverty, rises to win the championship. If Braddock had been a bright-eyed, stalwart hunk, spouting off about justice and courage, the film would have been unbearably tedious. Self-effacing Crowe, on the other hand, draws you in; there always seems to be some further secret in the character of this quiet, curiously solitary, man. And a wife who was a quick-witted glamour gal, badly disguised under a 30’s hat, would have torpedoed credibility. Zellwegger balances Crowe perfectly, with her pinched expression and Fran Drescher accent.
But the linchpin of this terrific cast is Paul Giamatti as renowned trainer Joe Gould. The standard order calls for an outwardly abrasive cigar-chewing grumpas, who in a late scene gets teary-eyed and reveals a heart of gold. No such folderol for Giamatti. He looks like he’s been molded out of Play-Doh, his domed head pinched and pulled upward, and bringing everything along with it, indomitably buoyant. As usual, he’s irresistibly watchable, yet without overwhelming Crowe’s quiet guilelessness; the two seem a perfect match.
And when he pounds on the canvas, shouting instructions to Braddock during the fight, boy, it sure sounded like good advice to me. I hadn’t before seen that a good trainer is primarily an analyst of movement, continually evaluating the strengths of each fighter as the bout progresses. Giamatti showed how active a trainer has to be during a fight, not just by his delivery of sharp-eyed coaching, but by his own tense physicality. And the lines he gets! As a wealthy promoter says, after he’s been overcome by Gould’s silver-tongued persuasion, “They oughta put your mouth in the circus.”
Howard doesn’t short-change us emotionally, however; his restraint has its limits. When Braddock is failing during a fight, he sees blurry images–a bread line, his kids’ empty beds, a stack of bills stamped “Past Due”–and begins to recover his strength. Likewise, when Mae is taunted by a fighter who has killed two men in the ring, she sees images of a coffin spattered with dirt, and a lone widow walking across a cemetery. You might think this kind of overly literal depiction would be too broad but, actually, it turns out to be just about right.
The character of this bad-guy fighter, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), is not overly subtle; he sports two floozies, openly signals his plan to kill Braddock like he did the others, and in the clinches murmurs in Braddock’s ear, “Does your wife call my name at night?” Of course, this only makes Braddock fight harder, which is obvious and inevitable and not a bit less effective for that. There are 35,000 in attendance at this fight, and every single one is rooting for Braddock; apparently, Baer the World Champion has no fans. During the big fight Mae goes to church and finds it full of people praying for her husband; the priest explains, “They all think that Jim’s fighting for them.” Well, that’s O.K. too. You need a little bit of ham with the mashed potatoes.
It’s often observed that it’s easy to depict evil in stories; what’s difficult is depicting good. The Phantom of the Opera is fascinating, and Prince Charming is a bore. But Cinderella Man accomplishes that difficult task, giving us in Jim Braddock a character who is genuinely and believably good. It does this, not by showing dark sides to “balance” his character (the usual gambit) but by depicting him as humble. Braddock does extraordinarily heroic things, but in a way that communicates that it’s just the normal way a man should act.
Cinderella Man is not really a movie about boxing, it’s a movie about what it means to be a man. In the character of Jim Braddock, we can read what today’s audiences are wistful for: a man who works hard to support his wife and kids, who teaches his kids to be honest, who communicates his delight in his wife with every glance. As Mae says to Jim in a late scene, “You’re the Bulldog of Bergen, the Pride of New Jersey, you’re everybody’s hope, you’re your kids’ hero, and the champion of my heart.” Do they make them like that any more?
–Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.