Judge Ryan Keefer believes that after the year that Russell Crowe had, sometimes real life is just better.
One man's extraordinary fight to save the family he loved.
There's no doubting the reputation of the cast and crew involved in the production of this film. You've got the main parties behind A Beautiful Mind in Oscar winning director Ron Howard (Arrested Development) and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (I, Robot). In its cast, there's the always reliable Paul Giamatti (Sideways, American Splendor), with the title character being played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator), and as his wife, fellow Oscar winner Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain). How does this summer drama look now, after an almost forgotten cinematic existence?
Facts of the Case
Based on a story by Cliff Hollingsworth, Cinderella Man chronicles a six year period in the life and career of James J. Braddock (Crowe), who was a light heavyweight fighter in the '20s and '30s. Braddock was on top of the world, but in a span of a few months he loses the title and most of his money as one of many victims of the Great Depression. During the depression, Braddock fell victim to an unstoppable foe for any athlete; he grew old. He had broken his prized right hand several times, and during the Depression era, was losing far more than he was winning—so much so that his boxing license was eventually taken away. Making this harder was the Depression's grip on everyone, as Braddock resorted to taking day shifts at a loading docks, working next to Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine, My Summer of Love, In America), who was also victimized by the times. Braddock is a nice man, and a proud one, occasionally doing things outside of his normal set of principles to care for his family. He is eventually reinstated as a last-minute opponent for a highly ranked heavyweight. Through a string of upsets, he is awarded a shot at the title against the tough champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Will the ancient (gasp!) 29-year-old Braddock pull off the impossible?
The trailers for this film inspired cynical thoughts such as "typical summer weep fest" or "cross-genre, dramatized chick flick." I said such things, and quite frankly: What the hell was wrong with me? The casting of Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti is a home run, so much so that this might very well be Crowe's best performance to date. In playing Braddock, Crowe is very comfortable in his own abilities and faculties; he is quietly proud, and always optimistic. He easily shows more emotion in this film than any other recent one, and not just because some of the scenes are designed that way. Braddock's realization that he may not have anything left for the ring is touching to see. A scene where he has hit bottom, forced to do something he doesn't want to do, is painful to watch, because you're aware of how proud he is, and how hard it must be for him to swallow that to save his family. Crowe gives an amazing, hypnotic performance, one of the best of 2005.
In the relationship he has with his trainer Joe Gould (Giamatti), Braddock is aware that his career is in the winter months, and Gould provides him with any opportunity that is available, protecting him whenever possible. A scene where Braddock's wife Mae (Zellweger) comes to the dressing room before the Baer fight has Giamatti leaving the room before being asked. He has become so protective of Braddock that he has stretched himself thin financially. It's a modest gesture that would go virtually unnoticed in another film, but is very quiet in this film, and hits just the right note.
Now granted, every boxing film since Raging Bull has only tried to come close to the fight scenes in the Scorsese boxing classic. And every film in a ring seems to have a guy with a steadicam in it, to get you "in the middle of the action." But Cinderella Man may be the closest yet to reproduce the effect. Howard emphasizes the importance and the presence of the trainer during a fight better than any film I've seen. During Braddock's first "comeback" fight, Gould sees an opening in his opponent's defense and shares it with Braddock. You also get a quick glimpse of what he means. It may appear nondescript, but to a fighter, it's all the difference in the world. The fact that legendary trainer Angelo Dundee was employed as a technical advisor and appears as one of Braddock's trainers immediately lends respectability to this effort, too. Howard creatively illustrates pain by filling the screen with white light. Now, some of the shots seem recycled (the fuzzy camera angle, the tight slow motion reaction shots), but within the overall context of the fights, they're effective.
The great question in life, aside from "How did I get here?" and "Want to go back to your place?" is why Cinderella Man was largely overlooked by audiences. To use slang from another sport, the film may be a "'tweener." It was released during the summer, before the season when it probably would have enjoyed more popular appeal. It's certainly not for a lack of trying, as major theater chains were offering gratis screenings of the film, and influential viewers like Larry King and Howard Stern were proactively advising their fans to see it as well. With any luck, Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti will all be nominated for their performances (can we give Giamatti the Supporting Actor Oscar already?), as well as Howard for his direction. Skip the cynicism, go in with no expectations, and you might be as amazed as I was.
Universal has given this film a pretty loaded treatment, with both a single and a two-disc Collector's Edition for consumers. The first side includes three commentary tracks along with the movie. The first is with Howard, the second with Goldsman, and the third with Hollingsworth. Unfortunately, the copy that was sent to DVD Verdict lacks these tracks. To Howard's credit, he manages to find compelling real-life stories and tells them effectively, and so it would have been nice to hear more information from him on this process. The deleted scenes, which total just over 20 minutes in length, feature optional commentary. These scenes are exceptional, and probably should have made the cut, but they would have altered the pacing of the film. Most of these scenes focus on the relationship between Braddock and Gould, and are further proof that Giamatti needs to be nominated and awarded an Oscar. Promptly.
The next feature covers the casting of the film, and is another 20-minute piece that features interviews with Howard and Casting Director Jane Jenkins (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) about who they wanted to play each part. This feature resembles an electronic press kit, as Crowe, Zellweger, and Giamatti discuss the story and their character's place in it. Even Bierko is given a little face time to reflect on his role, while Jenkins and Howard discuss the importance of accuracy in casting, especially considering the newsreel footage that the filmmakers have included. The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey is 14 minutes detailing how the filmmakers came to the story, including Crowe, Howard, producers Brian Grazer and Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own, Big), while the actors who were cast in the film reflect on the story. The crew, namely the cinematographer, production designer, and wardrobe designers, discuss the intent of their work. It is a typical "making-of" featurette. For the Record: The History of Boxing gives Dundee the chance to speculate on Crowe's ability, and the cast appreciates Dundee's experience. When you train Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, you have a great pedigree. Ringside Seats gives Howard, Grazer, and Goldsman the chance to sit with Norman Mailer and listen to his wisdom and insight while they watch footage of the Braddock-Baer fight. A picture-in-picture look of the individuals watching the footage is a nice touch. Jim Braddock: The Friends and Family Behind the Legend has 10 minutes of recollections with Howard Braddock, the only living family member (and Braddock's youngest son), and dated interview footage with Braddock. He discusses how his father lost his fortune, and how he managed to get back to the top. This not only serves as a biographical look at Braddock, but also spends the only significant time on Braddock's wife on this disc, along with Gould, which is nice. Finally, a disappointing, cheesy promotional tie-in with Kodak completes the first disc.
For the Collector's Edition, Disc Two opens with even more deleted and extended scenes, over 15 minutes worth. They are definitely not as good as the first batch, but if you want an exhaustive director's cut, this is probably all the footage you're going to see. Next is a video journal of Crowe's preparations for the role, set to music largely composed by him. He waxes philosophic on his profession, while the other boxers in the film spend time training on his ranch, and he punks them using fake crocodiles and snakes. Crowe's shoulder separation (suffered during production) is covered very well, including what presumably is footage from an operation to repair it. There's quite a bit of rehearsing and fight choreography, and a lot of training. It feels like the Rocky training side of things at times, but it's still an interesting look at the actor. From there, a look at the fight cinematography is next, basically showing the viewer the tricks employed by the filmmakers and the styles of Braddock's opponents. This is the most technical look at the sport on either disc, and isn't too bad. A three-minute photo montage of stills follows, along with a feature on the score with composer Thomas Newman, where he discusses working with Howard and his approach to scoring the film. The Human Face of the Depression is an interesting look at the era, using Howard's first inspirations and memories about the times, describing how Braddock's story fits into those times. A somewhat redundant music featurette follows, followed by several more featurettes about the production, entitled Pre-Fight Preparations. Combined, these pieces total about 25 minutes in length, and they range from Crowe's transformation into the character (which, like the music piece, is a little redundant), to the production design and look of the film.
There is a much needed look at Hollingsworth's story, and its origins, which go as far back as Crowe's reading of the script in 1997. A harmless look at the "inflatable extras" in the stadium is the last piece. The prize of this disc may be the footage of the actual Braddock-Baer fight. Judging from the length, it doesn't appear to be complete, but it helps to put the film's fight scenes to an accuracy test.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, the video version is not what I expected from this release, as there were a couple of artifact issues. From an extras perspective, were separate writer commentary tracks completely necessary? Otherwise, this is an excellent release from Universal, one of (hopefully) many to come.
Howard, Crowe and company have done another fantastic job. I'm sorry to shy away from a predictable cliché, but I've got to be somewhat original. The performances are top shelf, the extras provide both an insightful dramatic and historic look at the sport and the people, and the film is outstanding. Fans of the film will probably snap up the Collector's Edition, as there's just enough material to make it a worthy purchase.
Not guilty. See, even this court can go by without a Russell Crowe telephone joke or reference. Oh wait. Damn.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Ron Howard
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