Everlast-ing love: Fighting for the family

"In the Depression, was I depressed?"– "I'm Still Here" by Stephen Sondheim

Ron Howard crafts his movies so well it's easy to overlook their flaws. Cinderella Man immerses us in the Great Depression to make us feel better about whatever problems we have today. Then it shows a country in need of a hero and how a hero arose in that era.

Howard's excellent recreation of the early 1930s seems to go on forever, rubbing our noses in the details of poverty and the degradation it produces; but the farther James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) falls, the more satisfying his rebound will be. That's the theory– and it works, if you believe the end justifies the means.

The screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, which takes liberties with the events that inspired it, combines sensitivity with intense (but kept to a hard PG-13 level) boxing violence at the risk of alienating audiences for both.

Although the "Joisey" accents are somewhat caricatured, Crowe sounds more authentic and consistent than he did as a West Virginian in Howard's A Beautiful Mind, which won them both Oscars. He's introduced in 1928 as a rising light heavyweight, a working-class Irish American with a loving wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and some young children.

Mae can't bear to watch Jim's fights, but waits for him to come home with the results and the money. You have to wonder later, when she begs him to quit, whether she knew he was a boxer when she married him.

The other main character is Braddock's manager, Joe Gould. The always Oscar-worthy Paul Giamatti plays him closer to Burgess Meredith in Rocky than Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby. It's a stock role, but Giamatti works wonders with it. (But why does Jim never listen to Joe's advice?)

Cut to September 1933. The Braddocks are living in semi-squalor. Jim's purses have dropped from $1000 to $50, and while he's still never been knocked out in the ring, his won-lost record isn't what it once was, a decline that began in 1929 when the stock market crashed and he lost all his money.

After a lackluster performance– he's fighting with a broken right hand, and he's never been much good with his left– the boxing commissioner (Bruce McGill) pulls Jim's license. Now his only source of income is an occasional shift on the docks, where dozens of men line up every day for a handful of jobs.

One day, Braddock's oldest son steals a salami out of fear of being sent to live with relatives as his best friend has been. Jim promises the boy that will never happen in their family, but the bills go unpaid, the power gets shut off, and food becomes more scarce.

Having lost everything else, Braddock is willing to give up his dignity before he loses his family. He signs up for relief– that's what welfare was called, back in the day– and goes begging, hat in hand, where the flush boxing promoters hang out.

When things can't get any worse, they get better. A boxer is needed on short notice to face the second-ranked heavyweight contender at Madison Square Garden in a preliminary bout before the championship fight between Primo Carnera and Max Baer. Win or lose, not that anyone doubts the outcome, Braddock collects $250; but he still doesn't get his license back.

You can write the rest of the story. Jim comes to life in the ring and pulls off an upset victory, starting a comeback that will take him to the top. Baer (Craig Bierko), the champion, balks at fighting a "chump" who's over the hill and "can't fight back"; but after Braddock eliminates the rest of the competition, he has no choice.

Then the brutal Baer, who has killed two opponents in the ring, begins a campaign of intimidation, even insulting Jim and Mae in public, to gain the psychological advantage. When they do meet in the ring, it's a long, rough fight that makes the outcome all the sweeter.

Zellweger is fine in the limited role of The Wife, but when she says, "You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock," it's not as catchy as "You had me at hello."

Cinderella Man (a nickname bestowed on Braddock by Damon Runyon) raises some questions other films might well address. Was boxing really as democratic a sport as this film shows? It seems odd to watch a black man punching a white man in public in 1934 when they wouldn't be able to play on the same baseball team for another 13 years.

And when the crowd cheered Braddock against Baer in 1935, was it because the Irishman was the Comeback Kid or did anti-Semitism factor in, the champion being Jewish?

If you want to explore those issues, you should make your own movie. It may be more interesting than Cinderella Man, but I doubt it can be better made.