Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:57 pm 
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Exemplary mediocrity ain't such a bad thing

I have considered myself an opponent of Ron Howard's approach to film-making ever since I saw Beautiful Mind and found it manipulative, fake, and driven by false romantic assumptions about genius and madness. Worse yet, there was the sheer skill and conviction, the demonstrated ability to make millions lap up what Howard dealt out and call it a great movie. Nonetheless I thought this might be a better one and it is -- at least in the sense of being a well made conventional boxing picture -- though I don't see quite why we need another one so soon after Million Dollar Baby -- and in the sense of having engaged my attention and, occasionally, my emotions, without leaving me seething with rage. I may have to modify my anti-Howard position after this new movie.

"Cinderella Man" was a phrase used by contemporary journalists to label the triumphal concluding phase of James Braddock's seven-year period of boxing failure, Depression hard times, and sudden rise to heavyweight champion. The conventional underdog success story Ron Howard has made of Braddock's rise-from-the-ashes saga is as well done a little epic of feel-good courage as anybody could make at this questionable time in American history. Not surprisingly, the cast had to be headed up by a New Zealander.

The movie's steeped in period flavor which only rarely feels fake: there's a bit too much artificial snow and the period cars as usual are too shiny and perfect, but the clothes are good and the people look right. Russell Crowe himself has a face that fits very well into the sallow, downtrodden look of the Depression. I love the fleshy Irish boxing commissioner: I didn't know faces of such wonderfully glossy period smugness still existed on living actors' bodies: he's like a big, fleshier, venial FDR. Russell Crowe as Braddock and Paul Giamatti as his trainer (the character being an amalgam of the actual manager and trainer) are impeccable. Or not very peccable. Giamatti is odd, thinner-voiced and more delicate than you'd expect a denizen of the ring to be, but that in itself makes one inclined to think him more like the real thing than any usual movie version. And one just wants Giamatti, after his meteoric rise through playing losers in American Splendor and Sideways, to show us he can act a role that's neither whiney nor weird. Renée Zellweger, whom Hollywood too much loves to see as the plucky little lady, delivers the movie's most nauseatingly saccharine lines as Mrs. Braddock, but at least this isn't another of her embarrassing efforts to be elegant or busty. As the flashy villain Max Baer, who must be brought down, Craig Biro makes the transition from grinning playboy to scowling mauler with surprising, indeed incomprehensible, ease.

In looks this is meant to evoke the black and white movie, in color. Its sweaty conflicts may have more in common with Scorsese's Raging Bull than Michael Mann's Ali. But this movie isn't about a life, it's about a Depression hero, and the important scenes are of Braddock's family and work struggles, his pitiful decommissioning after a failed fight with a broken hand, entered only because of financial desperation; his struggle to find work on the docks and keep his family together with the gas and electricity cut off. Most of his history before is skipped over, and his life after is filled in only in concluding titles. What matters is the honesty, pride, and goodness of the man, teaching his boy you can't steal a sausage even when you're starving, returning all his public assistance money when he's been allowed to fight again and wins a big purse, never insulting a rival. It's also central that he took the championship from the brutal but glamorous Baer, in a moment that crystallizes his identity as Cinderella Man -- as the Depression poor's comeback kid, a boxer whose personal story gives hope to the masses. The scene when he walks out to the ring to be met by 35,000 silent, presumably adoring, fans is one of the most effective of Howard's usual numerous efforts to put a lump in the throat. A snappier moment is when Braddock's sent to dine in a posh hotel by the commissioner just prior to the fight with Baer, and Baer comes in in evening clothes with diamond-studded dames in tow. He insults Braddock and Mrs. B. throws a glass of water in his face. "You have your wife doing your fighting for you now!" Baer quips. "Isn't she somethin'?" he rejoins. The effort to contrast flashy style with modest integrity is quite effective.

Rosenbaum in his thumbnail review calls Howard an exemplar of honorable mediocrity. This is a favorable if somewhat brutal verdict: it means Howard's mediocrity comes out such skillful craft and sincere motives as to become exemplary, a sort of tarnished golden mean. This movie reminded me of Seabiscuit, another conventional effort that works, and another symbolic Depression come-from-behind success story -- though the horse racing details of that one engaged me more, personally, than the boxing details of this one, and I got more tears and joy from the Triple Crown than I ever do from any rise to the heavyweight championship. Among recent fight pictures Ali is more grand, its subject more complex and accomplished, Will Smith the astonishingly spirited and able recreator of the wonderful personality, the cadences of the voice, and even of the light-footed boxing technique. And in fresh in memory, Clint Eastwood's prize-winner Million Dollar Baby has more minimalist power: Eastwood doesn't need a Depression to show how down-at-the-heels the boxing life can be. But if you like the nitty-gritty black and white boxing movie style and don't mind having an "exemplar of honorable mediocrity" reproducing it, Cinderella Man is your stuff. Mediocrity never felt solider, stronger, or nicer. Only a small dose of Dramamine required. 7.5/10

©Chris Knipp 2005


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