The name "Cinderella Man" was given to Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock by journalist Damon Runyon, and Runyon's assessment of Braddock's story as one of the greatest in the history of sports begins one of the summer's most anticipated movies.
Russell Crowe stars as James J. Braddock in "Cinderella Man," which opens today. (Universal)
"Cinderella Man," starring Russell Crowe as Braddock and directed by Ron Howard, opens nationwide Friday to compete with "Revenge of the Sith," which is still performing well.
Some are calling "Cinderella Man" the boxing version of "Seabiscuit," about a Depression-era horse whose winning streak galvanized a struggling nation's spirit. In that regard, Braddock's story does mirror Seabiscuit's, but "Man" is a better movie.
Crowe and Howard last worked together on 2001's "A Beautiful Mind," and they have once again made magic on screen. Crowe dons prosthetic ears in his transformation to Braddock, whom we first meet in 1928 as a boxer whose star is on the rise.
Supported by a lovely wife (played sometimes a bit melodramatically by Renee Zellweger) and charismatic corner man (an Oscar-worthy Paul Giamatti), Braddock has everything going for him.
But then we skip to 1933—four years into the Great Depression. Things have changed drastically. The Braddocks have traded their lovely house for a shack. They dilute milk, one of the kids steals bread, and Braddock gives up his own food for the kids, even though he's trying to earn money at the docks.
Braddock maintains good spirits—and a healthy marriage, which really stands out in this film. He continues to fight, even with a bum hand, because he needs the money. His corner man, Joe Gould, sticks by him, but Braddock shows only a glimmer of his former greatness. He's washed up, and the ring owners eventually decide to cut him out of the loop. He's devastated, and his family is in dire straits.
With Braddock counting pennies to pay the electric bill and telling his wife he's "all prayed out," he visits the Emergency Relief Administration in New Jersey, where he takes a government payout. He also goes to his former boxing friends and essentially begs for money in one of the movie's best scenes.
His fortune soon changes, though, when his buddy Joe gets him a fight for $250. Braddock takes it … on an empty stomach … with borrowed boxing gear. That's 1934. He wins, and the boxing commission decides to let him fight again, thinking it'll be good for business.
Thus begins Braddock's second rise in the boxing world—a journey that will eventually lead him into the ring with the showy heavyweight champion Max Baer, played brilliantly by Craig Bierko.
If you don't know the real story of James J. Braddock, do yourself a favor and don't learn it before the movie. Enjoy the film—it gets tense down the home stretch and not knowing the outcome will increase your emotional stakes.
Watching Braddock determinedly punch his way from bread line to boxing ring is immensely engrossing, and having Giamatti's excited (but foul-mouthed) Joe Gould in the corner makes the film that much more entertaining.
As the notion of "celebrity" is often rightfully scorned as a hollow achievement, Braddock's story shows us that sometimes renown can bring renewal of spirit for those who need hope's reminder.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language. Reviewer's Note: Yes, some of the boxing scenes are intense, and Joe Gould does have a mouth on him.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman
Cast: James J. Braddock: Russell Crowe; Mae Braddock: Renee Zellweger; Joe Gould: Paul Giamatti; Max Baer: Craig Bierko; Mike Wilson: Paddy Considine; Boxing Promoter: Bruce McGill.
The movie's official Web site is here.