Jim Braddock makes most other sports comeback sagas look trivial by comparison, so it’s surprising that it took 70 years for Hollywood to bring his story to the big screen. In 2005, Ron Howard cast Russell Crowe as Braddock, Rene Zellweger as his loyal wife Mae, and Paul Giamatti in a bravura turn as the irrepressible Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, in a film that could only be called Cinderella Man. The phrase refers to Braddock’s famous nickname, which Damon Runyon hung on him as he rose from the Depression’s relief lines to the heavyweight championship in scarcely a year’s time.
Cinderella Man is a fine-looking, well-acted movie that lovingly captures Depression-era detail: my favorite image is the long shot of a recreated Madison Square Garden Bowl, the massive but short-lived outdoor stadium in Long Island City, Queens, used for summer fights. It’s an emotional, sometimes mawkish film that works in the underdog Rocky vein. But in Braddock’s case, the Rocky story is true: Braddock really was a promising fighter who fell on hard times just as the Depression began, spiraling downward as he lost fight after fight, his income shrunk, and he worried about feeding his kids and keeping the lights on. Braddock really did struggle to find enough work on the New Jersey docks, eventually applying for relief (welfare, as we call it today); he really did get one more chance in the ring and make the most of it, knocking off several contenders before getting his “Cinderella” title shot against heavily favored champion Max Baer, whom one sportswriter worried might kill him. And he really did pay the welfare office back, to the penny, when his fortunes had changed.
Moreover, Braddock really was the devoted husband and family man the film depicts. Howard makes it look as if Jim and Mae’s marriage can’t be threatened by anything short of a tsunami rolling over their apartment, and their devotion to one another plays a bit sickly sweet at times in a movie that could have been shorter. But this, too, was largely true to life.
What makes Cinderella Man work are its performances. Russell Crowe is steadfast and even stolid as Braddock, but his goodness comes across in ways both rugged and sympathetic; Giamatti won supporting-actor nominations for his sometimes-manic portrayal of Gould. Giamatti is the showiest actor in the film, but Craig Bierko’s Max Baer almost overshadows the lead, too—just as Baer did in real life to Braddock and anyone else he shared a stage (or ring) with. Baer’s descendants understandably objected to Howard’s portrayal of him as bloodthirsty, a man not affected by the deaths of two of his opponents. Howard did take license here, unfairly, probably because he wanted to create a more dramatic contrast between Baer and straight-arrow Braddock. But Howard (and Bierko) do capture Baer’s charisma and complacency—the latter quality costing him his title. As for Zellwegger, her charm and verve come through as Mae, but it’s a mostly thankless role as doting, sometimes hysterical wife.
The fight scenes are lengthy, graphic, and compelling, though on repeated viewings their implausibility becomes more apparent. (Movies will never achieve truly believable boxing action because the goals of a cinematic fight scene are at odds with the pacing of any real match.) Howard took the biggest liberties with the climactic Baer-Braddock bout, which he stages as a slugfest; in reality, it was a snooze, with Braddock taking the title in a workmanlike performance against a confused and apathetic Baer. But as a big-screen finale, it does its job.
In the end, how you react to Cinderella Man probably tracks how you feel about traditionally minded movies—and perhaps traditional values, to boot. Those not so inclined in this direction are less likely to embrace the film, though sometimes they tell us more about themselves than the work they’re reviewing. “One of the satisfactions of ‘Cinderella Man’ is that, in the end, the story that unfolds inside the ring is not the same one that Mr. Howard, his screenwriters and the composer Thomas Newman seem keen to sell,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her New York Times review. “Their Cinderella Man is the decent little guy who affirms what movie people call the triumph of the human spirit. The story Mr. Crowe tells, with Mr. Giamatti riding shotgun as a gleeful Mephistopheles, is that of a man who, having sampled the blood of others, clearly enjoyed the taste.” The movie has its flaws, but trust me, you can watch Cinderella Man multiple times and never come out with anything like such a bizarre interpretation.
Dargis called the movie a “shamefully ingratiating old-fashioned weepie,” and “old-fashioned” is probably what she was objecting to—Cinderella Man is certainly that, from its romantic story line to its emphasis on traditional virtues. The stark Depression-era trappings might have motivated other directors to indulge in political agitprop about, say, the evils of capitalism, but Howard doesn’t go that route: instead, he champions resilience, commitment, stoic self-help, and unconditional principles. (“No matter what happens, we don’t steal, not ever,” Braddock tells his frightened young son.) I’m guessing that Dargis found the story of Howard’s fictional character Mike Wilson more compelling. A former stockbroker, Wilson, a friend of Braddock’s, cannot maintain his equilibrium as the fighter does. He deserts his family, becomes a political radical, and dies in a Hooverville. To some viewers, the victim Wilson will seem more “real” than the hero Braddock. Is he, though? Did more Americans in the Depression take Mike Wilson’s route, or Jim Braddock’s? Millions of Americans persevered as Braddock did—they didn’t become heavyweight champion, but they held on, kept their families together, and lived to see better times.
Its limitations aside, Howard’s film dramatizes the timeless moral that there is no other choice, in tough times, but to hold on. You can’t give up, especially with children depending on you; you're not allowed to quit. In boxing parlance, if you’re knocked down, you have to get up—over and over again, if necessary.
Simplistic? Maybe, but it happens to be true. But then, my two favorite films are Shane and High Noon. Mephistopheles leaves me cold.