The last time I wrote an overtly positive review of any movie, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were still best friends, Lindsay Lohan had breasts, Katie Holmes was just another “Dawson’s Creek” has-been, and President Bush hadn’t yet finished out his first term, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I’ve completely lost my command of superlatives. It’s just that, since I wrote in December 2004 that Clint Eastwood had created “nothing short of a masterpiece” with Million Dollar Baby, I’ve had to endure the goring of Paris Hilton (House of Wax), watch Vin Diesel star alongside a duck (The Pacifier), see Ice Cube play both a lame-ass family man (Are We There Yet?) and a lame-ass action hero (xXx: State of the Union), the sarcastic contractions of Ryan Reynolds’ abs (The Amityville Horror), the desecration of the best sports memoir of my lifetime (Fever Pitch), and not one, but two Ashton Kutcher films (Guess Who and A Lot Like Love). It’s unfortunate, then, that Queen Latifah’s big ass (Beauty Shop), the emasculation of Will Ferrell (Kicking and Screaming), and the death of Pauly Shore are all I have to compare to Ron Howard’s beautifully written, superbly acted, and masterfully directed Cinderella Man, because it is not only the best movie I’ve seen in 2005, but — with my sincerest apologies to the makers of Elektra — it just may be the best movie a major Hollywood studio has put out since I began reviewing films nearly a year ago.
Cinderella Man tracks the true-life story of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), an on-the-rise boxer in the late 1920s, who not only loses his fortunes, but — plagued by injuries and a weak left jab — his career’s upward trajectory when the Depression hits in 1929. Saddled with a string of losses and a broken hand, Braddock sees the boxing commission unceremoniously pulls his license at the ebb of his career, forcing him to resort to soup lines, public assistance, and even panhandling to support his struggling family.
A year later, unable to make ends meet and facing the prospect of losing his children, Braddock — encouraged by his indefatigable manager Joe Gould (the brilliant Paul Giamatti) — accepts a one-shot-at-redemption $250 purse to fill in as a sacrificial offering and fight a rising star in Madison Square Garden. Operating with no training and on an empty stomach, Braddock, aided by the strength he has developed working shifts on the docks, surprises both his skeptics and himself, somehow pulling out a victory and fortuitously finding himself the envy of working-class America.
To say more about his rise might take some of the joy out of watching Ron Howard’s finely paced ode to Depression-era America slowly unfold, but Braddock’s story eventually leads him to heavyweight champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko) — who has already killed two men in the ring — and a final, flawlessly executed, tension-filled bout as exhilarating as any half-hour in the annals of the sports-movie genre. Indeed, Cinderella Man may be the first film in the history of the Harvard Square Theater not involving the Red Sox, Matt Damon, or Michael Moore to rouse the normally dour, cynical Cambridge-area intellectual elites into actual fucking applause.
Yet, as effective as the boxing scenes are, it’s Russell Crowe that really sells Cinderella Man, proving that — despite his off-screen assholery — he is still this generation’s best actor. Somehow, Crowe imbues a man whose profession it is to beat other people into pulp with quiet gravitas, creating (with a pitch-perfect 1930s Jersey accent) a character with a glower that is part humble and part menacing but entirely riveting. Indeed, Crowe’s manifestation of Braddock is not only as someone you want to root for, but someone who is almost universally relatable, a sympathetic everyman whether he’s knocking out a heavyweight contender or standing in a welfare line; he does the impossible, infusing the struggling boxer’s desperation with dignity. I don’t know how, but Crowe — who I honestly detest, with his charming smoker’s voice and cocksure grin — inhabits his character with such intensity, with such mind-blowing veracity, that within 45 seconds, you completely forget that James Braddock is being depicted by a bigger-than-life, 30-Odd-Foot-of-Grunts, Hollywood prick.
The normally oh-so-annoying Renee Zellweger also turns in a beautiful performance, belying her permanently kewpie pout with a nearly faultless rendition of a devoted 1930s wife and mother, making do with watered-down milk and standing by her man even as the electricity is turned off. Giamatti is — dear God! — perfect, excising all of his whiny American Splendor/Sideways eccentricities, making a mockery of the fast-talking, rat-ta-tat-tat, weasel-mouthed-manager caricature of boxing lore and creating the mold anew; I have no doubt subsequent Hollywood renderings of boxing managers will forever owe their inspiration to Giamatti’s turn as Joe Gould.
Ron Howard, no stranger to heavy-handed melodrama, repents for all his ham-fisted sins here, stripping an inherently sentimental story of its schmaltz, leaving Giamatti’s sunken eyes and Crowe’s cocked head and slightly upturned smile to do all the emotional heavy lifting. He also creates a pitch-perfect period piece, nailing not only the expected details (a Hooverville, a meticulously recreated Madison Square Garden) but mastering the added flourishes (stealing wood from an Esso sign!), taking pains to paint a panorama that Seabiscuit’s Gary Ross would envy. But Howard, like any successful businessman, owes most of his accomplishments in Cinderella Man to those that surround him, including Crowe, Giamatti, Zellweger, an exceptional supporting cast (notably Paddy Considine), the skillfully intrusive cinematography of Salvatore Totino, and Thomas Newman’s brilliant score, which is as pleasingly unsentimental as the movie for which it is written.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Cinderella Man / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()