Thursday, 21 February 2013

Cinderella Man

Cinderella Man is an American film released in 2005, directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti and Craig Bierko. It loosely follows the story of Real Life boxing champion James J Braddock, aka "Cinderella Man" (played by Russell Crowe). It was an uplifting underdog story, set in a time when the country very much needed one. 

The movie begins during what should have been the upswing of Braddock's career in the late 1920's. Braddock has it all a successful boxing career, a pretty wife, Mae (played by Renee Zellweger), and 3 beautiful children. Cut to several years later, we find out that Braddock was forced to abandon his boxing career after suffering a broken hand. His wife saw this as a both a blessing and a curse, as she feared for his safety in the ring, but knew boxing was the best way for Jim to support their family.

As the Great Depression hits, Braddock is forced to do manual labor, working on the docks to (barely) support his family, who live in extremely poor conditions. At one point, he takes public assistance (a great source of shame to him) to pay his electricity bill, allowing his kids to stay in the house. After another boxer cancels at the last minute, Jim's old manager, Joe Gould (played by Paul Giamatti) asks him to fight the number two contender in the world. 

There is little chance Jim will win, but this is a Ron Howard film, so...Jim wins the fight, thanks to new-found strength in his non-broken hand from his work on the docks, coupled with an uncompromising drive to support his family. After the stunning upset, Gould and Braddock discuss a full-time return to the ring. Mae is extremely angry with Joe for trying to profit from Jim's willingness to put himself in danger. She is surprised and humbled to see that Joe's belief in Jim is so strong, he and his wife have sold almost all of their possessions in order to pay for Jim's training.

As Jim continues to win fights, he moves closer to fighting the defending world champion, Max Baer (played by Craig Bierko), an arrogant and dangerous opponent in the ring. Jim's rags-to-riches story captivates the nation, earning him the nickname "Cinderella Man" and the fight is billed as a David vs. Goliath. Max Baer taunts Jim at every turn prior to the fight, attempting to humiliate him publicly. The boxing commissioner insists on showing footage of two of Baer's previous fights, where each boxer died from injuries sustained in the ring, so Jim is aware of what is at stake. But Jim's resolve remains strong and he insists on fighting, because he feels a duty to all those who believe in him. On the night of the fight, Mae cannot even bring herself to watch in person, or listen on the radio. In the end, of course, Braddock wins a stunning and hard-fought bout, enabling a Happily Ever After ending. But it is a Ron Howard movie, so this was to be expected.

The film is loosely based on the real events of Jim Braddock's career. The filmmakers did take some liberties in the name of entertainment value, mostly in the depiction of Max Baer. In the movie, Baer is a true villain, a brutal and unsympathetic Jerk Ass who deserves nothing more than to be knocked off his pedestal by the more deserving and hard-working Braddock. This does not differ from press accounts at the time, which used this sensationalized view of Baer to promote his fights. However, all personal accounts from the time (including Braddock himself) have nothing but good things to say about Baer, a kind and earnest man, who made wise-cracks and was generally well-liked. In Real Life, Baer was only responsible for the in-ring death of one man, Frankie Campbell. 

This incident haunted Baer for the rest of his life, and he actually paid for the education of Campbell's children out of his winnings as a gesture of remorse. Cinderella Man was a hit with critics (one of the best-reviewed films of that year), but not at the box office (just a $60 million domestic take). There are several theories as to why. When it was released, it was up against another boxing movie that had already garnered much box office success earlier in the year. It was also released in the summer, which critics largely agreed was not the right time for an emotional and evocative Oscar Bait film like this. Some theories also cite the negative portrayal of Max Baer. The filmmakers took a rather unusual step to boost ticket sales, by offering to refund the ticket cost of anyone who was dissatisfied with the film.