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Boxed Out

How Cinderella Man went from contender to underdog

Damon Runyon called fighter James J. Braddock the greatest human interest tale in boxing history.  His once-promising career cut short by losses and injuries, Braddock and his family fell into poverty during the Great Depression. Though he took any available job working on the docks, he couldn't make ends meet. His children near starvation, he applied for federal relief and begged former colleagues for help. On a fluke, in 1934 he was offered a one-time fight against a contender, a fight he was given no chance to win. But he did win--not only that fight, but a series of subsequent bouts against ascending competition. Against inconceivable odds he was crowned the heavyweight champion of the world exactly one year later.

Unlike Braddock, the movie based on his inspirational comeback, Cinderella Man, could hardly have been described as a long shot when it hit theaters last June. On the contrary, it had all the swagger of a meticulously constructed Oscar contender. Its star, Russell Crowe, had a trophy on his shelf from his prior turn as a noble warrior in the ring (Gladiator), and had been nominated for an outing with the same production team (director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, and writer Akiva Goldsman, who teamed with Crowe for A Beautiful Mind). Co-star Renée Zellweger, who plays Braddock's supportive wife, Mae, had won an Oscar for her previous portrayal of impoverished perseverance in Cold Mountain; the last time she donned Prohibition attire, in Chicago, it too stormed the Academy. Even the plot of Cinderella Man seemed engineered for the awards, closely aping Seabiscuit, another Depression-era underdog sports movie that had emerged as an Oscar contender despite an early-summer release.

But then a funny thing happened: This couldn't-miss movie missed. Despite good reviews, Cinderella Man opened in fourth place and never rose any higher, ultimately clearing a paltry $61 million at the box office--half of Seabiscuit's receipts and a little over a third of A Beautiful Mind's. Its gloomy demeanor was a poor fit for summer, and audiences instead flocked to sunnier fare such as Madagascar and The Longest Yard. As if the film's lackluster reception wasn't enough, Cinderella Man's principals have endured several bumpy months since. Crowe has been dogged by bad publicity (and legal proceedings) stemming from his decision, a few days after the film's release, to skip the comment card and register displeasure with his hotel service by phone (unwisely unplugged and airborne). Zellweger was no doubt rocked by her whirlwind marriage to country star Kenny Chesney, her filing for annulment four months later, and the fact that hardly anyone in America paid any attention to either. Even Ron Howard (as well as discerning TV viewers everywhere) had to contend with the cancellation of the brilliant but under-watched Fox series "Arrested Development," of which he was both executive producer and narrator.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Cinderella Man, just released on video, is considerably easier to enjoy now that it has been demoted a couple of weight classes. Yes, it's shamelessly schmaltzy and manipulative, and it lays on the tragic misfortune with an enthusiasm that would embarrass Dickens. But if you can't take that heat, stay out of Ron Howard's kitchen. Schmaltz is his specialty, and he serves it up better than anyone.

Cinderella Man opens with a brief glimpse of Braddock's promising early years in the ring--the easy money, the beckoning, wide-open future. But it's merely a setup, a ploy to place the subsequent hardships in starker relief. When next we see Braddock, he's lost his money to the stock-market crash and his boxing future to a series of losses. Despite a broken hand, he puts the gloves on for a $50 bout at the armory, a punchless no-contest so pitiful that the boxing commissioner (Bruce McGill) pulls his license. From there it's a sad, if familiar, litany: Waiting at the docks with dozens of other men for the handful of jobs that will be parceled out; watching Mae and the kids see how far they can stretch a slice of meat; having the heat and electricity cut off in the middle of an unforgiving Jersey winter; finally swallowing his pride enough to court charity. All of it, of course, is filmed (by cinematographer Salvatore Totino) with a soft-focus reverence that presents poverty as an economic trial but a moral gift: the radiant faces in a cold, dark apartment; the earnest lessons bequeathed. (When one of the kids is caught having stolen a salami to supplement the family's insufficient larder, Braddock lectures him, "We never steal. No matter what happens." No matter what?)

Viewers wishing to abbreviate their exposure to this portion of the film--I absolve you all, here and now--should fast forward to the 47-minute mark. (I told you Howard laid it on thick.) It is there that Braddock at last gets a small break that turns out to be the biggest break imaginable. His affectionate manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), gets his license reinstated for a single bout with a purse of $250--in Braddock's straits, the equivalent of a lottery jackpot. One of the fighters on the undercard of a championship fight has bowed out at the last second, and no "legit" boxer wants to step in without having had time to train. Braddock's role is to be "meat," a punching bag for the contender he is facing--a role he is more than happy to accept, given the payday. But amazingly, once in the ring Braddock punches back, hard and often enough to knock his opponent out in the third round. The boxing commissioner knows a good (read: profitable) story when he sees it, so further fights, and victories, follow. Braddock becomes an inspiration for a downcast America, a sign that there is room to hope even in the midst of apparent hopelessness.

When Braddock gets his shot at the title it is against the frightening Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a boxer of uncommon power and ferocity who has already killed two men in the ring. This fact gives Howard an excuse to keep tragedy lurking despite the film's otherwise promising arc: In the long leadup to the championship bout, hardly a scene passes in which someone does not conjure the specter of Braddock dying in the ring. But Ron Howard is not Clint Eastwood, and Cinderella Man is not Million Dollar Baby. Though intimations of disaster persist right up until the last round of the fight, the film ends, as it must, with a triumph of the human spirit.

Such uplift is all well and good, but the best reasons to see Cinderella Man are the performances by Crowe and Giamatti. The former gives Braddock a wry, oddly upbeat air that helps leaven Howard's grim direction. (You know something strange is going on in a movie when the famously glowering Crowe is its one ray of sunshine.) As Joe Gould, Braddock's manager, Giamatti is a delight, a fast-talking mensch (in one of the movie's best lines, he's told "They oughtta put your mouth in a circus") with a hint of sadness around the edges. His emotive patter is a wonderful counterpoint to Crowe's laconic restraint. Zellweger, sadly, fares less well, her Mae having been given little to do but alternate between the wifely roles of dutiful and fearful, supportive and protective. Her expression, a tad squinty even under the best of circumstances, is pinched so tight that one half fears it will never pop back into shape.

Cinderella Man is by no means a great film, but its heartwarming storyline is admirably suited to the winter holidays. 'Tis the season of sap and sentiment, after all, of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, a time when happy endings are measured in part by the depth of the misfortunes that precede them. James Braddock may not make anyone forget Tiny Tim or George Bailey, but after the year he's had he is at least, once again, an underdog.

The Home Movies List: Christmas underdogs

March of the Penguins (2005). A documentary that feels more like a fable, a metaphor for parental love or the cruel ingenuity of the natural world. For nine months each year, emperor penguins leave their comfortable ocean habitat to waddle 70 treacherous miles inland (if "inland" is the proper term for a topography of sheer ice). There, they will pair off and mate, and each couple will spend the brutal Antarctic winter caring for the single precious egg--and eventual chick--produced by its union. The French-produced documentary is narrated by Morgan Freeman, who once again proves that he should have a global monopoly on voiceover work.

Bad News Bears (2005). Richard Linklater's take on the Walter Matthau classic may not be inspired, but it's not half bad either. For once this is a remake that tries to honor its predecessor, rather than subverting it with irony-soaked self-referentialism. As crude, alcoholic Little League coach Morris Buttermaker, Billy Bob Thornton shows that typecasting is not always a bad thing. The movie's biggest problem is that when the original version appeared in 1976, a movie about repellent, foul-mouthed kids was a revelation. Now, it's par for the course.

Serenity (2005). Don't let the title fool you: This is the most rollicking space opera in many moons, a vastly more enjoyable voyage than anything George Lucas has offered in decades. A sequel/extension of the cancelled Fox series "Firefly" by pop genius Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel"), Serenity is smart, witty, occasionally harrowing, and, by the end, surprisingly moving. Thanks to its lack of stars (and advertising budget), the movie didn't make much noise at the box office. But it's poised to make a killing when it's released on video next week. Those looking for a last-minute gift for the boys in their lives--or just a nice evening's respite from the hectic holidays--will be hard pressed to find better.

Correction: This article originally stated that Russell Crowe won an Oscar for his role in A Beautiful Mind. In fact, he was only nominated. We regret the error.