I finally got around to watching Cinderella Man (directed by Ron Howard). For me, the movie highlights one major writing issue: the dilemma of the “perfect” character.
In this real-life story, Russell Crowe plays James J Braddock, a professional boxer who wore the heavyweight championship belt from June, 1935 to June, 1937 (he lost the title to Joe Louis). All in all, I thought it was a very effective film, but what’s most interesting to me is how the writers and director chose to portray James Braddock.
Russell Crowe had to play Braddock like an unequivocally good guy. He works hard, and he fights hard. He loves his kids. He passes every moral test. He never raises his voice to his wife, even when she’s provoking him. He even gives some extra money back to the US government once he can afford to pay back some of the assistance money he needed to pay his electricity bill in the middle of winter.
Sounds like a pretty boring character, huh? Sounds like someone almost annoying, because none of us will ever be that good. I will admit, I wished he had been a little less perfect, and if he was, the movie would’ve been 4 stars for me instead of 3 1/2.
However, there are some reasons why this “perfect” character either works, or almost works.
1) The movie is based on a real-life story.
This is double-edged, though. On the one hand, knowing that the movie is based on reality ought to be all the more reason to give a character some flaws, right? But on the flip side, it also means that Braddock isn’t all made up. There is a little credence we can give to the movie, knowing it’s based on a man who actually lived, and knowing that he was considered by many to be a good man. Great, inspiring people do exist. Nonetheless, perfect people don’t exist, so we need something else. The main thing is …
2) Though the character is too good to be true, his struggles aren’t.
The Great Depression hit Braddock and his family hard. Without revealing too many spoilers, his family struggled during those years and this was thoroughly believable. Also, Braddock dealt with realistic injuries and problems in his career as a boxer.
Ah, now we see why his character is starting to work. One benefit to having the “perfect” character is that he’s easy to like. But that’s not the problem here. We like James Braddock, no problem. He’s a good guy. The problem is with not believing him because he’s too good. So where’s the sleight of hand? Simply, he suffers. Maybe the best way to drum up emotional interest in a character is to have him or her suffer.
(a character we like) + (that character suffering) = (reader/viewer interest in that character)
That’s a formula that works.
3) Russell Crowe.
Crowe must have been challenged by this role. Still, he found a way to make Mr. Perfect gritty. Bravo.
I could also add things like the wonderful depression-era costumes, cinematography, sound, etc. It was a classy production.
4) Ron Howard’s artistic play.
Howard had to have known what he was up against. He was trying to sell all of us on a character who is, let’s face it, better than us. Boring! Or, annoying! But here’s what I respect about Howard’s artistic vision:
He wanted us inspire us.
Forget 100% gritty realism. Forget the conventional wisdom about not making characters too perfect. Howard must’ve said to himself, I want to tell a story that makes people want to be better and more moral people by giving them someone to look up to, but I want to do it well.
And one can argue that that’s exactly what he did. He found A. a true story, B. a story full of gritty hardship, C. a great actor to portray him, and then D. gave us a man to look up to in the middle of it all.
Though I still would’ve liked the story better if Braddock had at least one major flaw, I can also respect Howard’s vision (also, credit the writer of the story, Cliff Hollingsworth, and the co-writers of the screenplay, Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman). His vision is optimistic, and it speaks to our better angels.
In the end, Howard decided he wanted to transform and uplift his audience, even though he knew his story was a little less believable because of how he approached his goal. Still, it either worked anyway, or it pretty much worked. The positive response, then, is to be inspired by James J Braddock. To play by the rules, be kind to those around us, and work a little harder for what we love. That, I can believe in.
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Tags: Cinderella Man, perfect character, Ron Howard, Russell Crowe