Punch Drunk Schmaltz

Cinderella Man straps on the kid gloves

Moving right along, Team Ron HowardAkiva GoldsmanBrian Grazer brings you another laundered biopic, this time about A Beautiful Heart so unsullied by human frailty it must surely have been Touched by an Angel. In real life, the organ in question belonged to New Jersey boxer James J. Braddock, an Irish-American comeback kid who triumphed over poverty and an injured right hand to defeat killer heavyweight Max Baer in 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden in 1935, to the unrestrained joy of a New York proletariat reeling from the Depression. According to Cliff Hollingsworth, who wrote the script for CinderellaManwith Goldsman, Braddock was indeed a standup guy, a devoted friend and family man known to his fans as Gentleman Jim, who was shamed by having to go on public relief, returned the dole money in person when his luck turned, and gracefully retired while he was still on top. Even Damon Runyon pronounced Braddock's life a tale worth telling, though I suspect he would have winced at the populist pudding Howard has made of it.

Howard is known as one of the film industry's genuinely nice people, and I suspect he made this great big Opie of a movie more in a spirit of sincerity than of patronage toward his subject or his audience. But there is no underestimating the remote-control condescension Hollywood high-ups are capable of when it comes to picturing the lives of ordinary folk. Nothing daunted by charges that they cleaned up schizophrenic mathematician John Nash's character in ABeautifulMindfor purposes of inspirational uplift, Howard and Goldsman have folded this boxer's colorful life into an instance of that hoary old canard about the meek inheriting the Earth. Braddock may well have been a hell of a fellow, but it strains belief that a born fighter with sufficient guts and stamina to prevail in a business not known for its moral purity would also possess the simple-minded saintliness ascribed to him in CinderellaMan.

The movie is calamitously miscast, beginning with Russell Crowe, who, for all his pumped-up pectorals, gives a stupefyingly docile performance as the boxer, mumbling and shuffling and ducking his head even when off duty, and deploying an unflaggingly high mind in the face of adversity. No opportunity for sentimental editorializing goes unseized. When chronic unemployment reduces Braddock and his family to penury, we see him, surrounded by raggedy extras who look like refugees from a stage production of Oliver!,marching his little boy down to the butcher's to return a stolen salami, then swallowing his working-class pride by accepting public relief and begging at a bar frequented by indifferent sports honchos. When his luck changes and he gets his big chance, we are given to understand, in flashback cutaways, that what spurs him on is never a drive to win, but past images of his starving kids. By the grace of God, and of Braddock's trainer (Paul Giamatti, growling valiantly but clearly at a loss), and of course of the spunky little missus, played by Renée Zellweger in a flurry of coy simpers and the usual squeezed-lemons grimace, he becomes a star.

CinderellaManisn't much more of a fight movie either. The lead-up to Braddock's big night is interminable and suspense-free, and as Crowe slogs through his 15 rounds, he is slyly upstaged by Craig Bierko, who brings a brutish flash—a relief after all that rampant sanctity—to the role of the hard-partying dirty fighter Max Baer. Even when playing noble types, Crowe is an actor who thrives on contradiction. He was at his best as the brooding tobacco-industry whistleblower in Michael Mann's TheInsider,an uptight functionary who couldn't stand seeing the rules bent, and became a hero in spite of himself. Stripped of all complexity, not to say the naked ambition that drives most sporting idols, his Jim Braddock is little more than a well-mannered, ever-so-'umble model.

As it happens, there isa plausible hero tucked away in the background. Braddock's friend Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine) is a hotheaded activist who, far from being cowed by the Depression, is enraged by the big-business greed that brought it on, and tries to organize the demoralized masses. Mike, unlike Braddock, is the sort of man who would know that not everyone can be a star, and that in times like these government assistance, so far from being a source of shame, is a worker's right. Which may be why this smugly individualistic movie casts him as a bit of a pinko, know what I mean, and a drunk to boot.

CINDERELLA MAN WAS DIRECTED BY RON HOWARD; WRITTEN BY CLIFF HOLLINGSWORTH AND AKIVA GOLDSMAN; PRODUCED BY BRIAN GRAZER, HOWARD AND PENNY MARSHALL. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.

 
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