CINDERELLA MAN (Ron Howard, 2005)

It was Damon Runyan, I believe, who fixed the tag “Cinderella Man” to light heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock during the Great Depression. It is fitting, therefore, that Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, which is about Braddock’s failures in the ring—his boxing license was revoked in 1933—and sensational comeback in 1935, should be vaguely Runyonesque as well as Capraesque. Howard has said he owes his interest in the time in which the film is set to his father, actor Rance Howard.

The film is a formal mess, and its being so gives a distorted and highly limited view of the Depression. Indeed, the film aestheticizes the Depression and the uncertain time for the Braddocks—Jim and his wife, Mae, and their several children—leading up to the Depression. (The film begins in 1928.) The interior space of the Braddocks’ Jersey home is gorgeously underlit; after their electricity is turned off for nonpayment of bills, the effect is even more gorgeous, with a row of candles flickering in the luxuriantly rich darkness. There is nothing especially wrong about Salvatore Totino’s color cinematography, but it is inanely applied. What do these pretty pictures have to do with anything? I am reminded of the low point in Steven Spielberg’s ghastly Schindler’s List (1993), when the belching smokestack of a death camp crematorium achieves a similarly inappropriate gorgeous visual effect. Like Spielberg there, Howard simply doesn’t stop and think. Who doesn’t like a gorgeous film? That’s all he is concerned about. It doesn’t cross his mind that the visual aspect that he and his cinematographer achieve is out of sync with what the film is purporting to show: economic hardship and struggles; difficult human lives.

And Howard compounds this fault further. Our eyes adjust to the scarce interior light. But once Braddock is outdoors, among a throng of laborers hoping for work, the sky is dull and blank: another aesthetic choice. This is preposterous. However well one may rationalize the scarcity of light indoors, what is one to make of it outdoors? Doubtless, Howard backed himself into a corner. Having lowered the lights indoors, for the sake of stylistic consistency he now needed to “lower the light” outside! Thus Howard reduces the Depression to a climatic event rather than a socioeconomic one, since the contrivance of the degree of overcast all but overwhelms the image of scores of men who are out of work and desperate for a day’s employment. Howard’s film is too wrapped up in his eye and too little in sound judgment or his compassion for suffering humanity.

Borrowing a page from Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), another film about a boxer, Howard resorts to cardboard melodrama by making Braddock’s opponent in the ring, on the occasion of Braddock’s comeback, a sadistic villain. Like Eastwood, Howard is apparently incapable of grasping the concept of shared tough times, in which “opponents” are equally entitled to our sympathy and compassion. However, it is even more essential for Howard to grasp this because his film is set in the Depression, when countless individuals found themselves in the same socioeconomic boat, struggling to keep afloat. Braddock’s decency does not require the melodramatic foil of a vicious opponent. Moreover, Howard should have resisted this conventional impulse of his on another score: the opponent who is made out to be vicious here, inside and outside the ring, is an actual person. Max Baer, whose namesake son is still with us, I believe, was nothing like how he is unconscionably portrayed here. Here is some material about Baer from Wikipedia, the online Internet encyclopedia:

[Baer] turned professional in 1929, progressing steadily through the ranks. A ring tragedy little more than a year later almost caused him to drop out of boxing for good. Baer fought Frankie Campbell . . . on August 25, 1930[,] in San Francisco and knocked him out. Campbell never regained consciousness . . . [and] eventually died of extensive brain hemorrhages. . . . This profoundly affected Baer; according to his son, Max Baer, Jr., he cried and had nightmares over the incident for decades afterwards. He was charged with manslaughter. Although he was eventually acquitted of all charges, the California State Boxing Commission still banned him from any in-ring activity within their state for the next year. He gave purses from succeeding bouts to Campbell’s family, but lost four of his next six fights. He fared better when Jack Dempsey took him under his wing, and Baer put Campbell’s children through college.

This is the soul whom Howard’s film vilifies. There is something else, of course, that needs to be stated about Max Baer. Again I quote from Wikipedia:

In 1933, Baer (with a Star of David embroidered on his trunks . . .) boxed Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, dominating the rugged fighter from Germany into the tenth round when the referee stopped the match. Because Baer defeated Schmeling, Hitler’s favorite, and had a Jewish father, he became a hero to the Jewish people . . .

Given the time in which Cinderella Man is set, I ask: Is this a soul whom Howard should be vilifying? Is Howard incapable of grasping that, even in a film about Braddock, Braddock shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all? Since the film refers to the real world, Howard ought to have understood that the world is a bigger place than his simplistic film allows. It may be that Howard lacks the heart to find Braddock’s comeback inspiring except as a consequence of the melodramatic contrivance of Braddock’s goodness opposing somebody else’s nastiness. But fairness and the possibility of better filmmaking ought to have made him resist trying to fit Max Baer into such a reductive mold.

Although the film divided reviewers and fared poorly at the box office, many have praised the sequences in the ring. Howard pulls few punches there, but we have seen the same stuff done just as well many times before.

Russell Crowe, as Braddock, gives the one good performance. (Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, is slow, selfconscious and way over the top.) Craig Bierko plays Max Baer as though Baer were Max Schmeling.

Shame, shame on little Opie.

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