Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko and naturally Clint Howard somewhere in the mix.
The Great Depression hit America hard, but determined albeit washed-up boxer James J Braddock hit back harder.
After suffering a career-ending injury in the ring, not to mention the nation’s economy going to hell, James pressed on to keep his family together and well away from Hooverville. Of course it was a struggle, especially when it came to finding dependable work with a bum wrist, but James had weathered trouble before he was rich and famous. Now he’s going to have to start over. No depression of any kind will keep him from caring for his wife and kids. He’s waiting for the next round.
It’s kind of funny, however, that a streak of bad luck could sometimes lead to a “lucky break,” even if in a left-handed sort of way.
It’s been claimed that Ron Howard is unique in the pantheon of great directors. He makes movies that are crowd-pleasers as well as critical darlings. It doesn’t really come as much of a surprise really. Howard has been on sound stages ever since he played little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (and now try to get that theme song out of your head) and later as average Joe High School Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He was raised in front of the camera with his baby bro Clint under the watchful eye of their character actor dad Rance. It was a sort of family industry. So after being in front of the camera for years, it came as not much of a surprise that Ronnie wanted to make some movies of his own. With that CV, Howard was more than up to the challenge.
Howard’s breakthrough film Splash was a hit. I caught it at the drive-in when I was kid where I got to see a young Tom Hanks flexing his comic chops. I didn’t get the whole art and craft of filmmaking when I was 8, but I knew what I liked and I liked Tom Hanks. He was silly. The rest of America felt that way, too and so the guy’s star rose high enough to eventually team up with a well-seasoned Howard a decade later to deliver Apollo 13. Both movies were epic treats and critical smashes. The left-of-center fairy tale romance that was Splash and the nail-biting adventure in NASA history that was Apollo 13 both had something going for them, and it wasn’t Hanks. Okay, it wasn’t just Hanks.
Reel back a bit. Splash was an auspicious start as a director to be noted. It helped, no doubt, Howard’s education forged in TV and film for decades offered perspective. With that backlog, Ron’s created a bag of tricks to make most of his films the Pied Piper to America’s willing audience. A lot of great directors have one. It’s called their signature. You know when you’re watching a Scorsese film (or a Kubrick, Hitchcock, Burton or Carpenter film) before you read the credits. Howard has a signature: quality. Regardless of the story, casting, staging, lighting, choreography or stubborn prima donnas, he more times than not makes a movie that is satisfying. Fleshed out, driven of purpose and above all pleasing to the eye. Many great directors achieve these things, but Howard manages to always execute his films with warmth. That’s the ticket, that’s his signature.
Sidebar: It’s been said that Howard is the model to which all child actors should aspire. Ron has no drug rap, no criminal record, an all around nice guy, caring dad with his daughter Bryce making her own splash in Hollywood, and a guy driven of purpose: to make good movies for everyone to enjoy, audiences and critics alike. However I’d like to believe to former trumps the latter. Let’s face facts: Howard’s films are to simply be enjoyed. Just sayin’.
Howard’s covered a lot of thematic territory over the past forty years. He’s done romance (the aforementioned Splash), comedy (Parenthood), fantasy (Willow), action (Backdraft), thriller (Ransom), biopic (Pavarotti) and sci-fi (Cocoon). All of them with varying degrees of success, thanks mostly to the skill of delivering warmth. However one genre that has never betrayed Howard’s vision is that of historical drama. Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind, Far And Away and this week’s victim. Granted not all of these films have been great, nor exactly warm, but they were executed well and very shrewdly.
This is the part where the rant ceases being a Hallmark card.
Here’s what I mean by Howard being shrewd regarding those dramas. Being shrewd is the antithesis of being warm. From my understanding Howard stays faithful to the history of the story but also knows when to deviate from fact to make better fiction. It’s like what that oft-misquoted quote is from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. I’ll maul it a bit more here: “When the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” He’s been known to do some sweetening with his historical dramas, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when done right. Heck, a lot of good directors deviate from the story for a better film (EG: Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is both a watered down and over the top reinterpretation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness). Often that’s how it goes down. On occasions, however translating the legend gets clunky (check out the U-571 installment, for example). Shoehorning. Not warm, neither shrewd. Not in Howard’s bailiwick.
Being forewarned what follows are spoilers. Kinda. The difference between spoiling and clarifying depends on which story you stumbled onto first: the movie or the source. Avert your eyes if you must, but there’ll be no blue book waiting after this history lesson. The following may, may be considered spoilers, but not in the sense that I am giving away any crucial info to ruin your day. I’m divulging the mundane, historical record that got tweaked in contrast for a juicier filmgoing experience. Now shaddap and watch this filmstrip.
*raps chalkboard with pointer*
Settle down. And who stole my goddam apple?
All right then.
Jim Lovell did not say, “Houston, we have a problem” in Apollo 13. In reality it was, “Houston, there is a problem.” The tweaking of the line made it more personal, y’know? More urgent. Mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife Alicia stood by him as he wrestled with schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind. In reality she divorced him unable to endure the stress of it all (they later reconciled and John lived as her boarder for the rest of his days. They had no kids. That and the whole pen exchange was totally made up). Holding it all together was the underlying story in the movie, and what can be accomplished if you keep plugging away. Divorce is the antithesis of that, head against the wall. Nixon admitted he was involved in a cover up, not a victim of one. Cinderella Man got its fair share of massaging also.
Still with me? Good. Moving on.
It’s a tricky thing. There’s always that whole thing about creative license balancing the historical record. Let’s face facts, most movie goers who like biopics could give two sh*ts about the Wikipedia page. They want to be entertained, rightly so and have never read a Marvel comic book in their lives (or a book at all). The historical facts attached to/inspiring the movie only really apply to the curious, and curious I am. Curious enough to share some Cinderella Man factoids. Not to decry Howard’s direction. Quite the contrary. How he was cagey in tweaking just the right “facts” to deliver a better movie. One that draws you in. This is important. Duh.
Here’s the story of Cinderella Man. The historical record is telling. Yes, Braddock revived his boxing career and won the Heavyweight Title against Max Baer in 1935. Okay. Baer was never the assh*le he was portrayed be in the movie. Sure, he was a rock star boxer, but still a professional athlete. When he knocked out and ultimately killed his opponent, Baer was very distraught by the accidental death. He even gave up boxing for a while. When returning to the ring before the title bout, Baer contacted Braddock of putting the championship fight on hold due to Baer’s fears, worry and knowing Braddock was no longer in his prime.
That Max Baer makes for a sh*tty villain. “Pussy” may be a better word. But there are no “villains” in boxing. This wasn’t the WWE. Baer was not Braddock’s nemesis, he was his opponent. But a movie about a comeback kid needs an antagonist. Bingo, Baer the pompous asshat was borne, and someone to boo at and call a bum or palooka or whatever pussy terms they used back in the day. Conflict is what drives a story and earns an audience. Being a good sport on the losing end does not. Howard knew this, and we—I—bit.
That’s just a small sample of Howard’s shrewdness when it comes to tweaking the facts to promote the legend. It’s safe for me to assume/speak for all of you that history can be pretty boring. It’s been said that the victors write the history, and I believe there are very few accurate stories in history that are exciting as the legends. Good examples? There were not just three hundred Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and his army had scores of vassals, squires, cheerleaders, caterers, etc to get the job done. Marie Antionette was not so flippant as so suggest the hungry Parisians without access to bread should eat cake instead. In truth the doomed lady-in-waiting allegedly declared, “Let them eat the crusts (from the paté).” Yeah, just as insensitive (if not more so) but not as tantalizing as cake. Einstein never defined insanity. The source is attributed to part of the Narcotics Anonymous manifesto dating back to the early 1980s. Guess Einstein was sexier.
You follow? With historical drama, you gotta spin to sell it, but it has to be the right kind of spin. The record is almost always a straight line. Facts don’t entice as much as tears in the fabric do. A director needs a little wiggle room (read: creative license) to make the facts read out like a legend. People like to believe in legends, get behind them, wish they were the real thing. Howard got that, which is why Apollo 13 was a summer blockbuster as well as Oscar fodder.
If we’re talking spin, that’s kinda like how James J Braddock’s story dropped. And rose up.
In the mid-1920’s “The Bulldog Of Bergen,” James J Braddock (Crowe) was the toast of Heavyweight Championship Boxing. Wiry, fast and could take a licking and keep on hitting. He had it all. Fame. Fortune. His devoted wife Mae (Zellweger) and three wonderful kids at his side. A nice house in Jersey, money in the bank, and James on the up and up in practicing the “sweet science.” The fortunes a wishful man dreams about.
That was all before the Great Depression hit, financially ruining James’ family. Not to mention his career. The Braddocks sold virtually everything to survive, including their liquid income, solid income and family home. Matches dried up. James was feeling the strain, physically, emotionally and most of all paternally. It was in his final fight he broke his right wrist, effectively ending his career. So much promise broken by so much pressure. All of it textbook tragic.
Years later, James is pulling itinerant work at the docks, One afternoon he’s visited by his old friend and trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti). Despite James being cut loose years ago from the boxing commission, Joe’s wrestled up a bout for James to score some quick cash. That’s what friends do in hard time. The opponent is just some chump, but the kitty is a healthy $250. James says he’ll give it shot hoping for some groceries for the next month or so. There are four mouths to feed. As well as a dream deferred.
Of such humble beginnings—or second chances—a legend can be borne. Again.
Cinderella Man may not be Ron Howard’s best movie, or the most praised, but it is the probably the most quintessential.
All the director’s skills are on naked display here, but nothing is overplayed. Man never wears out its welcome. There have been oodles of historical dramas that freely overplayed their hands, even those made by great directors. Kubrick’s Spartacus, with its soap opera trifecta of Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons (no, not that one) and Tony Curtis. Zwick’s Civil War masterpiece Glory that—how can I say this?—seemed more about alienation than honor at times. Mank’s Cleopatra, the end.
Man never hammers down how downtrodden and maudlin Crowe’s Braddock was. As of this installment Cinderella Man dropped in 2005, 15 years ago. Those in the know have heard that Crowe can have quite the temper. I’m not sure if this is true. Back in the years he could do know wrong in the early aughts, his onscreen personas overrode any offscreen antics. As I like to way too many times say never confuse the artist with the art. Considering here with Man, whatever hothead Crowe is on his days off, that rumor only enhances his performance as Braddock here.
Crowe has an ability to be earnest, whichever role he’s chosen (since LA Confidential. We’ll ignore Romper Stomper and especially Virtuosity today) and that’s a key aspect of his Braddock. He does eager and determined well in equal doses, most likely like any real working Joe in those times; reality versus finality. Despite his reputation, Crowe’s Braddock is rather nondescript after the cold open. We get the underdog treatment, but Howard being shrewd he pulls back the melodrama just enough to educate us that, yes, James is not totally out, but a guy who is down on his luck. And there was a great deal of luck to be down on in the Braddock household. He’s just doing what to do to get by with his family. It felt like polished cast James lugged was a kind of albatross, a reminder of what went wrong. We’ve all been there (and many are still there, thank you COVID) asking “What did I do to…?B
Between Crowe’s earnest performance and Howard knowing how to spin a yarn, our hero is neither a sad sack nor bitter. Like I said determined, as well as unsure of himself after such a crushing loss of his career and his home. Vulnerability; it works every time. Crowe’s roles have been rough and tumble for years, only hinting at enough vulernabilty to make us get behind him. Recalling everyone’s fave boxing story to glory Rocky, Man is unabashedly romantic, and also it’s the most likable Crowe has even been as an actor, and that’s saying something. No tossed phones nothing.
Crowe’s foil Zellweger was an odd casting choice at first. She seemed somewhat out of place. Her Mae was a little too precious, however still held enough on her own. Odd casting call for the first act, but her performance as Mae does grow on you. I could think of a dozen other actresses to play Mae (oddly enough Lizzy Caplan topped my list, with Emily Blunt a close second. Must be the hair), however with time and how the plot unwound I kinda got why Miz Renee got picked. Her character unfolds gradually over the three acts, like in Shakespeare but written by Ring Lardner. Mae knows more about what’s unfolding before James, or we do. The undercurrent, the tension of what is truly at stake with James’ second chance—earning more money at the risk of his own safety—is a proud and well presented Howard touch regarding family being stronger together than apart (EG: having the kids go stay with Mae’s sister “for a bit” is not an option in the Braddock home). You can see this tack in some of Howard’s other movies, like Apollo 13 or even Cocoon and Willow. This is technically a family film, but not in Disney fashion. Overall, Zellweger had the good head on her shoulders and proved to be more than just a concerned housewife. I was surprised.
The last leg of this troika is Giamatti’s Joe Gould, the Dr McCoy of the central players. Let me get this out front: I love Giamatti. He’s in the same caliber of the late, great Sean Connery. Meaning Paul’s been in a lot of questionable films, but he’s always good. I love his “gift for gab” in all his roles, and his Joe Gould is no exception. Probably the best role he got to demonstrate his verbiage. His motormouth delivery as a huckster and trying to be a decent, well, “Joe” in hard times when his friend James is covered in existential mud. If you consider it, Joe was James’ saving grace and unflappable in his ability to get back into the ring. James was under confident, Mae was scared and Joe was the attaboy huckster. I like that kind of graceful comic relief. Sometimes we all need a buddy without realizing it, especially from a familiar well that’s always there to dip in.
Okay. Let’s talk nuts and bolts.
Howard is notorious for establishing the ideal settings for his stories. Among location directors, scenarists, second units and/or very good sound staging he gets the job done, and the dreary world of Man is no exception. The period pieces are great, doubtless enhanced with tasteful CGI. Howard’s Great Depression here is repression, opression. The ultimate gambit of the haves being so ignored that the downtrodden are everyone’s out for themselves. The first act of Man is about futility and desperate measures, all sepia toned and glaring, almost like foreshadowing to James’ downfall.
It’s all gradual. It’s enticing you. It’s enlightening. It’s the hook. Like Crowe’s earnest Braddock, Howard lures you in with atmosphere and especially scenery. In the second act—after Braddock got his second chance and scored—the sepia tones gave way to sharper hues, hinting at he future. The fog is lifting. James won a few matches. Earned money to pay the bills. Some sunshine of the man’s back. And notice how the boxing audience gradually gets larger and larger. Another Howard trick: get behind the hero, be a part of the moment. I was.
Now the meat of the matter, the Maguffin. The boxing scenes. Granted we never see James punch frozen cattle carcasses, but the mounting matches fit that bill. Those near knuckle bouts were exciting and visceral, and I was never into boxing save Nintendo’s “Punch Out!” (and I never won). I sure as sh*t got amped watching these bouts, especially for the amazing editing and clever use of effects. Meaning when James shattered his wrist in his “last bout” we got an azure X-ray snap of the injury. Later on in the comeback fights, we get the cerulean flashes every time James takes a hit, and comes blinding with the final bout. It’s almost overwhelming, the hurt, the hurt, the hurt. But as fans we know why and who Braddock is: a fighter, but not for the purse. Not for milk. Not to be defeated.
Yes, the fighting scenes were exhilarating, and the tender moments of family and just getting by were kindly sentimental but never schmaltzy. The balance between pathos and desperate struggle was neatly packaged making for great tension. Another aspect of this balance was the pacing, my pissy muse. Man had a feeling of a classic three act play, where everything lined up just right to tell the narrative. Now not everyone knew the history of James Braddock like we did the failed mission of Apollo 13 where it was all over the TV news back in 1970. Braddock’s story was far more prosaic that the misadventures of astronauts. That was the key to Man’s simple wonder. It’s a underdog/comeback story with a nice, neat gift-wrapped happy ending standing above romanticizing the past and plunking the right amount of history into the story to make Crowe’s Braddock seem like a neighbor. That is what makes a shrewd director great. Focus on the story and don’t forget who you’re sharing it with.
Man had just the right amount of melodrama, action and bending the truth to be a real crowd pleaser. I sure was pleased, and quite satisfied. Good story, good execution. The most straightforward Ron Howard film ever. And in these times of bloated biopics, where the lead is granted to win the Oscar, it’s a relief to have a very good film win zilch.
“I want to go out like a champion. I want to be carried out.”
Time to throw in the towel. Ha.
Rent it or relent it? An absolute rent it. You’ve probably figured out when the installment is this sober (even if I wasn’t) I loved the movie. I scored a hard copy off eBay. Nuff said.
- The milk thing.
- “I got in a fight…”
- For a Kiwi, Crowe does a good Joisey accent.
- “Hey Joe, this is Joisey.” See?
- Lotta good accents here.
- “Welcome to Noo Yawk.”
- I’ll stop now.
- “I won.” Mug. Delightful.
- The empty apartment thing.
- “We all know the name of the game, and it sure as hell ain’t pugilism.”
- Was there some sort of Chariots Of Fire, Jew versus Catholic undercurrent going on? Well, Braddock did use the orthodox position and that is the greatest Dad joke about religion and boxing you will ever read today.
- “I think I can go a few rounds with a dancing Baer.”
- The good luck handshake thing.
The Next Time…
Another historical drama! Cool! This time we follow Charlie Hunnam deep into the Amazon searching for The Lost City Of Z! Catch it!