Cinderella Labors for Oscar Gold, Turns Into Pumpkin
By Fernando F. Croce

Stop the presses, next year's Best Picture Oscar winner is in already in town -- Cinderella Man is that insipid. The Ron Howard-Russell Crowe-Akiva Goldsman troika, A Beautiful Mind culprits all, now tackles the James J. Braddock story, and their work is already cut out by the poster's ad copy: "When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet." The inspiring, true-story of a man who rose out of the depths of Depression-era miseries to represent the unbreakable spirit of a nation. And to serve honorably on WWII. And help build a bridge. And turn holy and float away. Cynicism comes cheap, of course, but I guess Hollywood crowd pleasers don't please me much lately. Or at least Ron Howard's don't -- my reviews of his work could easily be packaged into an entire volume called Confessions of an Opie Hater. The major shortcoming of his stolid, humorless populism is the way interesting lives get flattened into the easy-to-digest heroism mode of the big-budget biography, so that guys like Jim Lovell and John Nash get their human complexities ironed out in favor of velvety messiah robes. Thus, Braddock is not just a proletarian former-slugger trying to make ends meet for his clan, but the unsullied hero of the people, and nothing less than the spirit of America, fuck yeah!

Things are bad in 1929, and what Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino can't visualize in ashen sepia-glow gets helpfully explained by a torn newspaper headline on the muddy ground, announcing 15,000 out of work. Braddock (Crowe) is one of the broken souls, whose broken fist has landed him out of the boxing ring and into the cold of the Depression, along with the missus (Renée Zellwegger, tiny voice, dolly scrunching-up, et al) and the kids. No work on the waterfront, milk diluted with water, "I'm all prayed out, Mae" -- once their heat is out, Braddock has to swallow his Irish-via-New-Joysey pride and stand, cap in hand, at the Madison Square Center until his old fat-cat buddies pitch in and even riffing-machine Paul Giamatti, as pugilist manager Joe Gould, is puddle-eyed. The big guy can only go up from there, and indeed that is just the start of his skyrocketing back to fame, as Gould snatches him a second-string fight that the lunk unexpectedly wins. The rest is history, culminating in the famous 1935 bout with razing, glowering world champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), whose fierce blows have already sent two contenders into the earth. The entire neighborhood in church praying for him, Braddock steps into a hushed ring; some guy at the bleachers rips off Rob Schneider's "You can do it!" bit from The Waterboy, to thunderous applause.

"Cinderella Man" is what Damon Runyon dubbed Braddock's riches-to-rags-to-riches trajectory, and Cinderella Man is, despite the alleged grit of the ravaged settings, a fairy-tale designed to let audiences out with a glow, unfazed, unthreatened. The picture apes the staccato, flashbulb-blow technique of Scorsese-Chapman from Raging Bull for the boxing segments, rib-breaking X-ray inserts infiltrated subliminally amid the slugging, but the visceral crunch of the sport is as manufactured as the implication of working-class exploitation is evaded -- a detour into "Hooverville" slums for a missing pal simply adds to the safe Depression-era fantasizing. In Crowe's required, are-you-not-entertained? lip-service outrage bit, he admonishes a batch of empresarios for making a buck off the in-fighting of the lower classes, though Howard neuters the point by falsifying Max Baer's own poor origins (as a struggling butcher's spawn) into a bullying society dandy, the better to tumble under the squeaky-clean gloves of the director's über-Everyman. Everything ends well, of course, since the Depression was but a streak of bad luck and, as Braddock tells it, "we live in a great country," ready to give the fallen palooka a second chance. Raoul Walsh humanized his own scrappy hero in Gentleman Jim with humor, but Howard works by giving out halos, grabbily going for the tear ducts the way an angry monkey goes for the gonads. Star Wars may be done, but Rocky, that other reactionary hobgoblin, lives on.

*

Weird how my belated review of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room coincides with the unveiling of Deep Throat; the labyrinthine bamboozling of Enron rivals the Watergate debacle in depths of exposed rot. Whether somebody will try to pump tragic-figure stature into one of these money-draining assholes (the way it's been done to Tricky Dick) remains to be seen, though director Alex Gibney has already compared nerd-cum-Gordon-Gekko Jeffrey Skilling to Jay Gatsby. "Visionary" Skilling administered the Houston-based gas 'n' electric corporation with founder Ken Lay ("Kenny Boy" to bud Dubya), and proceeded to pocket astronomical gobs of dough via their unverifiable-profit format, touting constant money influx while concealing losses and wowing the panting financial publications. Gibney's documentary kicks off with Hard Copy-style reenactment of the suicide of Enron dealmaker Cliff Baxter before rewinding to the roots of the twin glass towers and the conglomerate's versatility when it came to fraud, from natural gas to bandwidth to Blockbuster to power barges in Nigeria. All in the name of "the magic of the market place," until the simplest of questions opens up investigation and the rats start leaving the sinking ship, documents shoved into shredders and all, before a $30 billion debt emerges from under the rug in 2001 and countless lose all their lifesavings.

The muckracking-assembly format, corralling news footage, conglomerate skits and interviews with various analysts and former Enron henchmen, is from the book by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, though the wise-guy musical cues ("Son of a Preacher Man" heard over Lay's Baptist origins, "That Old Black Magic" following a quote from Reagan, Tom Waits growling extensively) are Michael Mooreish. Former California Gov. Gray Davis, long the pariah, makes a surprisingly credible victim of the suggested political conspiracy that ultimately landed The Terminator in the office; indeed, the state provides the film with its most potent (and most enraging) section, as Enron in 2001 manufactures California's energy crisis to fatten its bankroll and two anonymous company buzzards gleefully chortle over how much green they're leeching off the suckers ("Burn, baby, burn!" one exults as wildfires pulverize the power supplies). Lucidly edited, Enron scarcely provides new info to anybody who followed the fiasco in the news, though Gibney's implicating thrust is bracing -- "synergic deception" is hardly the privilege of only one big-business juggernaut, and ultimately the company's skullduggery, the rationality of amorality for profit, must be placed within the larger context of a culture built on what one wag calls Darwinian capitalism. One beast got caught, but the jungle remains the same.


Reviewed June 9, 2005.

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