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Fighting for life in the Great Depression

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Both a richly documented history and a fund of personal anecdote instruct us in the manifold ways in which the American government and the American people coped with that disaster of free market capitalism known as the Great Depression.

The programs of Franklin Roosevelt's administration attempted to provide employment to the millions of men and women out of work and to rejuvenate the economy with a number of ingenious ideas and legislative actions, the results of which persist in public life today. According to a couple of recent motion pictures, however, it wasn't the New Deal that lifted the spirits of the nation in the face of crushing poverty, hunger, and hopelessness, but actually a horse and a prizefighter: the horse was Seabiscuit and the fighter was Jim Braddock, the title figure of Cinderella Man.

Ron Howard's latest movie, another docudrama in the vein of A Beautiful Mind, deals with the domestic and personal difficulties of Braddock (Russell Crowe), a once promising fighter defeated by injuries, bad luck, and hard times. His boxing license revoked for poor performance --- he had broken his hand and couldn't punch --- the fighter struggled to support his family through some of the darkest years of the Depression, shaping up for longshoreman's work on the New Jersey docks, applying for home relief (welfare), even pathetically begging from his former friends to pay his bills.

A reversal of fortune and the dogged determination of his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) combine to get him a single fight against a leading heavyweight. Implausibly --- though as Mark Twain pointed out, life, unlike fiction, has no obligation to be probable --- he wins the fight and launches a comeback, apparently capturing the imagination of the country in a dark and dispiriting time.

Dubbed the Cinderella Man, he ultimately fights Max Baer, who had killed two men in the ring and boasted he'd knock off Braddock as well, and defeats him, winning the heavyweight championship.

The rags-to-riches story, the most common motif in all of folklore, and certainly a frequent pattern in the boxing flick, in this instance possesses the rare advantage of historical truth, a real version of all the Rocky movies. Not surprisingly, Ron Howard, as is his wont, milks the material for just about all the tears it will yield, dwelling for unconscionably long periods on Braddock and his children, Braddock amid the poverty and squalor of his family hovel, above all, Braddock and his sweetly suffering wife (Renée Zellweger).

Along with their troubles the director provides an occasional glimpse of the nation's plight, particularly in a scene in a Hooverville in Central Park, where in a familiar action the police attack the homeless and unemployed, killing one of Braddock's friends.

Aside from the many long scenes of the Dickensian domestic situation, the director spends an enormous amount of time in the ring, showing what seems like every round of every big fight. The fight scenes lack the grace of Sylvester Stallone's in Rocky and the paradoxically poetic brilliance of conception and execution in Raging Bull, probably the best boxing film ever made. Instead, the slugging goes on and on, without much variation or economy of gesture, until even the audience feels a touch punch-drunk.

Despite its attention to authenticity of time and place, the movie neglects a good deal of the reality of the Great Depression, suggesting, perhaps inadvertently, that the media of the period distracted people from real problems by concentrating on sensation stories of heroic underdogs like Braddock and Seabiscuit (now it's Michael Jackson and the Runaway Bride of Georgia): nothing really changes for the manipulators of the national psyche. Likewise, the director never even hints at the possibilities of fakes and fixes in the prizefights of an era when professional boxing was even dirtier and more corrupt than it is today.

The fact that Russell Crowe, of all people, played a genius in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind and now plays a boxer in his Cinderella Man would suggest that he is an actor of unparalleled versatility, impersonating an intellectual and a physical heavyweight.

The rather short, pudgy Crowe, however, rarely resembles a champion fighter and considerably smaller, less muscular, and less healthy than the Broadway pretty boy Craig Bierko, who plays the nasty Max Baer. This long, dull effort may qualify as a biopic, and it may dramatize a number of actual people and events, but for all its facts, Cinderella Man tends to ignore truth.

Cinderella Man (PG-13) is playing at Pittsford Cinema, Culver Ridge, Eastview, Henrietta 18.

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