Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Keep Fishin’: Cinderella Man

| by Justin Thomas |

MGM is in trouble, which puts the kibosh on Bond 23 and keeps Red Dawn on the shelf. There will be a Bond 23 but the End of Days will also happen at some point with the dates of both occurrences being equally unknown. Will a day come when lion roars no more? Maybe. And it’s a big deal because it’s MGM, it’s film history, it’s the studio that brought us Agent Cody Banks.

My favorite part of the MGM logo is “Ars Gratia Artis.” Art for art’s sake. I’m not naïve enough to think that MGM adhered to the idea each and every single time out. In fact, I’d think a studio that participated in both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz knew what putting a bunch of butts into seats would mean for shareholders. That’s fine. The idea, art for art’s sake, is there. I don’t know what studio, production company, director, producer, best boy, performer, et cetera, et cetera participates in the production of cinematic works simply for the resulting work and not a pay check. I’m certain they’re out there and working, but I’m also certain many, many hope to make a lot of money, and it’s a business so you take that bad with the good of what appears on screen.

Why is it less admirable to see a movie that functions at every level to win Academy Awards than a movie designed to make a boatload of cash? Neither should be admirable if ars gratia artis is the guiding principle, but the Oscar Fishermen are the ones who get me worked up and make anyone accompanying me to a coffee shop rue the day they mentioned the name Sam Mendes. That’s a long way to go to get to the idea of hating Cinderella Man simply because it exists, but I do.

You remember how Cinderella Man was marketed. From the Academy Award-winning team behind A Beautiful Mind. Starring Academy Award-winning Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. Featuring Academy Award-nominated Paul Giamatti. Show a few clips of the movie, be certain to put the ® behind Academy Award, release it, get the speeches ready and wait for the awards show. From the word 'go,' Cinderella Man had one goal and one goal only: win statues. Not make a good movie, further define the language of cinema, make the best movie ever, give era-defining performances or anything of the like. Just win statutes. And the resulting film confirms it as the main goal.

John Ford directed a fairly decent movie about the Great Depression, but Henry Ford hadn’t won an Oscar or been nominated for an Oscar until he played Tom Joad. But, oh, how the Great Depression can yield a dramatic story sure to tug on the heartstrings of Academy voters. In case you didn’t pay attention during American History class, the Great Depression sucked. It sucked for nearly everyone. There’s a ton of conflict and, as a result, a ton of drama in it. It’s just the kind of drama the Academy likes. But let’s put right what John Ford once got wrong! Let’s use people who already won Academy Awards! There have been many Great Depression-era movies but none starring Crowe, Zellweger and Giamat together! Yes! This is the ticket if ever there was a ticket.

Want to know what Cinderella Man does to remind you it’s dramatic? Everything. We’ve got the promising young boxer who falls from grace. Oh, and he also loses all the money he ever made because he wisely invested it in wise investments that ultimately didn’t prove to be so wise. But what a dad! He’ll still box as long as he has a license, but when he loses that, he’ll stand at the docks waiting for a day’s worth of work. With a broken hand! Ooh, that’s great. And, and then we’ll cast them down further. We’ll turn off his electricity! Yes! Then we’ll make him take assistance! Yes! Then we’ll make him carry his hat in his hands – LITERALLY – when he asks his former boxing buddies for money! YES! How can this lose?

And the wife... what can we do with the wife? Oh, she’s fearful of the Depression and what it’s doing to the family. Yes. Oh, and how about this? She’s also one of the bazillion movie boxing wives who, wait for it, fear for their husbands’ safety due to their profession! GOLD! And we’ll have her eventually get behind her husband because it’s what a dutiful wife does! Man, oh man, we’re talking The Grapes of Wrath here!

But what else can we do? How about we make them stretch their acting chops this time around by using New Jersey accents? And train! Let’s make Russell show those six pack abs! And Giamatti? Well, he’s the damn finest person to pull off a boxing trainer since Burgess Meredith. We don’t even have to direct him because on the list he’s a nobody compared to the Big Two plus Grazer and Howard! This is a blueprint to becoming the winner of all winners and getting to the Top of the World!

Now, the script, oh, yeah, the script. How can we be as manipulative as possible? Show Braddock being the world’s best husband and father who is getting beat down by the times as often as possible. Every other scene should be Braddock and Mrs. Braddock talking about the overwhelming odds against them. Show Gould’s apartment, empty from all the things he sold to give Braddock his last chance to show that it hits everyone. Show all the people watching Braddock ride to the last fight, how they recognize them and use SAG actors so we can see in their faces just how much hope Braddock gives them; can’t leave something so important to dope extras. And Braddock needs to enter Madison Square in silence so we can have everyone in the crowd stare in awe at this Man of Hope before we get the Slow Clap. And then, with the fight on the line, we’ll show just how smart Braddock is when he thinks back to the film and how Baer will try to beat him. Toss in Braddock’s friend who dies in Hooverville to show how bad things are, show all the violence there, toss in a priest who brings radio into the church so the parishioners, all praying for Braddock and the hope Braddock provides them, can listen to the fight while watching the priest shadow box. On and on. And on. Yes, the tingle went up and down my spine because the moments when it happened were designed to make it happen, and the movie opens with a title card actually saying what the movie will be about: Braddock and his struggle giving so much hope to those who had none.

Cinderella Man features nothing new. Everything is recycled but put under the Howard/Grazer sheen in an attempt to have a Movie Moment (you know, Red telling off the parole board, any number of Pacino speeches where he tees off on something before the crowd eventually gets behind him and applauds) everywhere possible. And they occur. They hired competent actors to do it, and the actors pull it off. Cinderella Man isn’t a bad movie, but the effort to put the sheen on the film would have been better served putting a heart into it.

I know. This is based on a true story, but if the elements used are true, the story could have stood alone without all the manipulation. Ken Burns could make an “American Stories” on James J. Braddock and his film would have me more emotionally invested in Braddock than Cinderella Man.

One reason why Oscar Fishermen bother me more than Bruckheimer and his thirst for dollars would be I want to be surprised by the performances of those who win the awards. If you love Johnny Depp (nearly everyone) or hate him (I know of one), his Jack Sparrow is, to me, what awards are about. Find an incredible performance and recognize it. I find it less admirable to see someone out there to get that recognition. I’ve developed two ways Christoph Waltz could have reacted to being handed the script for Inglourious Basterds. “Mein Gott, this will win me an Academy Award,” or “Mein Gott, this is the best character anyone is ever going to give me to perform and I hope to Gott I’m up to the challenge.” I like to think the latter is more accurate because the latter is more worthy of praise.

When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer. With Grazer and Howard I feel like they haven’t yet wept. They can be bigger than Bruckheimer in the number of enormous movies they make, and they’ve made some big ones. They can win more statues than Harvey Weinstein, and they’ve won some statues. This is the Grazer/Howard movie that just wants your cash, this is the Grazer/Howard cinematic work of art that wants your tears. Oscar fishing isn’t unique to them, but at least once, they were very open about it, and I hate Cinderella Man because of it.

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