Reviews: Crash, Cinderella Man

Crash has little nutritional content, but it tastes really good. It's the cinematic equivalent of a Pop-Tart (which I consider an ingenious breakfast food, for the record).

The movie's take on racism is facile--everyone is both racist and tolerant, and situations can make sinners and saints of us all--and the movie's structure echoes the theme: every character has an episode that reveals a vicious racism and another that displays their humanity or tolerance. It's as if the movie has nothing new to say on the topic of racism so it chooses to focus its energy on how it has to say what is has to say. In that, the movie is hypnotic and absorbing.

The movie is a series of vignettes, linked together with seamless and often clever transitions. At times you think you're following one episode, and then suddenly, with one cut, you're inside another. The textures of each episode are so similar that by the end of the movie the stitching of the fabric is almost invisible. Many of the individual scenes have an undeniable power, and they're staged and acted with an operatic intensity. Each of them winds up the tension so high that their resolutions prove emotionally cathartic. One after the other they pound headlong into the audience; watching is like riding an emotional bronco.

I missed the opening speech by Don Cheadle, but it's in the trailer, the metaphor that people crash into each other just to feel something. It's a concept that only makes sense in L.A., given its vast horizontal expanses and the numbing hours its citizens spend crawling through its arterial highways (in NYC, everyone is piled into each other, crashing into each other in subways and sidewalks. These interlocking multi-threaded movies would seem to make more sense in NY, yet Magnolia, Crash, and Short Cuts are all set in Los Angeles). The metaphor has a certain aesthetic beauty, but it's also a stretch. The movie tosses the characters together using plot coincidences that force them to confront their prejudice and compassion; it's doubtful many of them would have sought out such situations on their own.

Crash may not add much to the country's discourse on racism, but its emotional power is formidable. Million Dollar Baby, another Haggis screenplay, had similar strengths and flaws. At times, Eastwood and Swank were hijacked in the service of some grand ideas that wasn't as engaging as their characters. I left both movies feeling the same way, with my heart thumping and my brain shrugging.

Cinderella Man, unlike Crash, is based on a true and uplifting story that should speak for itself, but it arrives with its own baggage. The movie doesn't shy away from embracing its identity as a Ron Howard/Brian Grazer Oscar-seeking biopic. I struggled mightily to combat the feeling that every scene, every line of dialogue, and every note of the score was carefully crafted in the hopes of snaring a gold statue at the Academy Awards in 2006. Perhaps Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) and his wife Mae (Renee Zellwegger) really were a perfect, flawless, decent couple. From the very little I've read, Braddock's story is indeed an amazing one. Still, the movie suffers from an odd variant of Michael Moore syndrome; rather than focus all its energy on tearing down its subjects, this movie does cartwheels and handstands in an effort to fit its protagonists for sainthood.

Russell Crowe tries to fight off the deification. I'm with Chris Rock; Crowe's your man for the period piece. He individualizes Braddock, particularly in a scene when he has to go, literally with hat in hand, to beg for money at a club filled with well-to-do boxing promoters who knew him when he was a promising young fighter. It's a moving scene, and Crowe soft plays it so as not to over sentimentalize it. Crowe's face is always a war among a frown, an intense gaze, and a reluctant smile, perfect for the down but defiant Braddock.

A movie needs its villains, though, and this movie has two of them. One is the Great Depression. Braddock is supposed to represent the hopes of nation beaten down by economic oppression, but his connection with the other people of his time is given only passing coverage. He's given a friendship with a union organizer named Mike Wilson that feels like a plot appendage intended to link Braddock to social issues of the times.

The other villain is boxer Max Baer (Craig Bierko). To the detriment of Braddock's cause, Bierko's Baer is more goofy than menacing. Bierko is not all that fierce in physique. We're told he killed two of his previous opponents by detaching their brains from their skulls, but his physique fails to live up to the legend. Bierko is tall and lanky, and in a fist fight my money would be on Crowe, no questions asked. I never once felt Crowe was in any danger in the ring against Bierko, whose signature expression of intimidation is a crazy bug-eyed stare. Anthony Lane refers to Bierko's Baer as a homicidal dandy, not exactly the type of branding any boxer would aspire to. He's not just a dangerous hitter, we're shown, but a crass womanizer. He makes a pass at Mae, she responds by tossing her drink in his face with her mousy scrunchy face (yes, to my dismay, we're given the plucky, mousy Renee Zellwegger in this movie). The fighters Braddock defeats prior to fighting Baer are such clumsy galoots that they rob Braddock's comeback of its improbability.

The boxing itself is more realistic than that in the Rocky movies, in which the two fighters don't block but simply bash each other's heads in with an intensity that would drop any human being in about five seconds and kill any mortal inside of a minute. However, much of the boxing is framed so tightly that it's tough to see what's going on. It's a camera trick intended to amplify the perceived intensity and speed of the punches, but it always bothers me in any scenes of combat. In the best of Asian martial arts movie, the fighting is framed for maximum clarity. You see the moves clearly, and they still astound.

Another misstep, one this movie shares with a similar movie in Seabiscuit, is that the movie cuts back and forth from the final fight to shots of Zellwegger and the Braddock kids and family friends listening to the fight on a radio. During every scene with Zellwegger and her kids, the radio announcer screams and shouts about some critical action in the ring, and we agonize over the action we're missing, as if the television set suddenly changed to the Food Network just before the season ending climax of our favorite television show. In Seabiscuit, the final race is interrupted by dry narration over still photos.

Paul Giamatti's portrayal of Braddock's trainer Joe Gould is a treat, especially with the memory of his depressed alcoholic from Sideways lingering in the air like the stench of liquor. Seeing Giamatti's Gould giving Braddock's pep talks before the fights is precious irony. It's as if Giamatti turned his life around in rehab.

Maybe a movie doesn't need real villains. This is an inspirational story of good people, and its lack of cynicism and its willingness to wear its hear on its sleeve are jolting and even heartwarming, especially in contrast to the predominant voices of our time. Me, I like my soup spicier and my Cinderella stories with a couple evil stepsisters, but as a dessert, Cinderella Man cleanses the palate.