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Cinderella Man

Is Hollywood trying to tell us something?
Releases like Seabiscuit and the new Ron Howard / Russell Crowe vehicle Cinderella Man seem to be preparing us for an economic disaster of epic proportions, not just the loud fart that was the dot.com bust. The patriotic myth of the downtrodden making dueTM has a long history, of course, but there’s a hysterical, hypnotic work to these films that makes them feel like manipulative propaganda.
The hero of Cinderella Man is Jim Braddock (Crowe), a simple man fond of saying things like, “Let me take them on in the ring, at least then I know who’s hitting me.” Facing the bleak realities of the Great Depression, Braddock is a perpetually injured fighter on the skids. His decline from a happy middle-class professional boxer to just another face in the soup line is glossed over in just one fade, leaving Howard to tell the story of his Horatio Alger-like ascension from the bottom up.
The post-Depression Braddock has made a career of losing matches. Attributing his numerous injuries – and, by association, the plight of the middle class during the Depression – to a string of “bad luck,” he goes to work at the docks after being disbarred as a fighter. The docks, an imperfect pre-configuration of Labor Ready where faceless corporate bosses pimp workers out on a day-by-day basis, are hard on Braddock, especially since he has a broken hand, but like all good Americans he never complains.
Things are not going well at home, either, though wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) is as uncomplaining (and uncomplicated) as Braddock, at one point dismantling a billboard to burn the timber as fuel when power is turned off. The couple lives with their three uncomplaining children in a basement apartment surrounded by other hearty, stalwart folks. 
I trust I won’t ruin your surprise by telling you that Cinderella Man is obsessed with the American Dream, our quaint national fairy tale. Nuance doesn’t survive in this myth, and this is fine with Braddock, since the has-been boxer doesn’t struggle with the underlying causes of the Depression. Complaining and critiquing are meaningless to him and he never questions the fat-cat world around him, where he has been put out of commission like a machine that no longer works.
(That particular job is left up to a minor character that is brutally killed when he moves into Hooverville and begins spouting communist rhetoric – the pinko! Desperation is a powerful work incentive, but futility has a way of backfiring, creating revolutionaries out of ordinary wage slaves just when you need a temp to sort your file cabinet.)
Crowe excels at this role, saying more in a simple expression than Howard’s legion of flimsy mouthpieces. Here is a body that has been beaten against the wheel and left for broken, rising up time and time again.  Using the film’s sparse dialog to his advantage, Crowe saves the film from sinking under its own rhetoric with simple gestures and expressions.
Zellweger, on the other hand, is simply outclassed as Mae, Braddock’s dutiful wife. The film is insulting when it plays lip service to feminist critiques, and Zellweger’s hysterical, over-the-top performance as a hysterical, over-the-top wife feels contrived. The couple’s children remind me of the starry-eyed kids you see on velvet paintings, and I half expected one of these three-dimensional cartoons to talk in a faux Brit accent and adopt crutches to complete the Tiny Tim impersonation.
Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), is a sick weasel that ends up having a big heart, and how Giamatti can pull the role off with a straight face is beyond me. When the going gets tough, Gould dresses up, relying on his ostentatious digs and spacious apartment to keep the façade of success alive, but he turns out to be as everyman as the boxer he represents.
If Braddock, his wife and family, and Gould are models of success and patriotism, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the boxer Braddock must beat in the final quarter of the film, is definitely the bad guy. Young, brash and Jewish, he symbolizes the carefree, decadent days of the roaring ‘20s. Where Braddock is happily married, Baer has multiple female lovers; where our hero is humble, simple and uncomplaining, Baer is a braggart and is flamboyant. 
The only problem with presenting this clear dichotomy is that these characters are based on real people, and while the conceit of the film has Baer boasting about the man he killed in the ring, the real boxer evidently suffered an emotional breakdown following the death of Frankie Campbel in a boxing match and was tortured by the memory for life.
(Ah, but see how real life muddies the symbolic play of propaganda?)
Maybe I’m being overly cynical about this movie, but when the fairy tale of our generation is told in 80 years will Mike Tyson be the man wearing glass slippers? And if so, what facts will be left out to complete the satisfying portrait of a good American?

 

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