Fighting Depression

Summer is in full swing, and I am compelled to swing back. Cinderella Man tells the story of heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock, the Bulldog of Bergen, the Pride of New Jersey, a working-class hero for real. It's something of a puzzle why his story has not been told on screen before, seeing as how we have it on the authority of Damon Runyon, who conferred on him the titular nickname, that there's no human-interest story in the entire history of boxing to compare with it. (You can read the exact wording right up there on screen at the outset.) Runyon, to be sure, passed from the scene in the mid-Forties, or well before the story of, say, Sonny Liston; but the latter's shadowy tale is not the type to interest Damon Runyon, or for that matter humans in general. Braddock's, on the other hand, is the "inspirational" one of a real-life Rocky, a Seabiscuit on two legs, who, after challenging for the light-heavyweight crown in his early career, broke his hand in the ring, piled up the losses, lost his license, lived with his family in abject poverty through the first half of the Depression, took work on the docks when he could get it, got a second chance in the ring as the last-minute substitute for an injured fighter, then a third chance, and a fourth, and finally a shot at the title against the glamorous heavyweight (and, unacknowledged in the film, sometime Hollywood actor) Max Baer, an 8-1 favorite with two dead men on his record.

You ask yourself what sort of human would be interested in telling such a story, or what sort would be interested in watching it (cheering for the foreknown outcome), and you come up with a simple answer: a simp. More specifically, Ron Howard, who tells it in a plodding, unimaginative, straight-ahead, albeit expensively produced, fashion. (There is no need, just because of the proximity in time, to hit him or his film over the head with Million Dollar Baby.) Not for nothing is Howard a trusted name in the popular mind. He makes the "right" choices, meaning the expected ones, the proven ones: grainy-photography clichés for gritty authenticity, desaturated-color clichés for bleakness of mood, golden-light clichés for domestic warmth, slow-motion clichés for the fights. These, predictably, are without variation thunderous slugfests that deviate from reality when nobody's arms fall off. Even an early one, ostensibly stopped by the ref for lack of action, produces plenty of fireworks, not least a blink-of-an-eye X-ray vision of the hero's broken hand. (In a later fight, it will be an X-ray vision of his broken ribs.) The brief bits of putting the camera into the mind's eye of the hero might strike the mass audience, flattering itself on its ability to follow the thought, as boldly experimental, in the same vein as the Caligari-esque delusions, factually presented, in his A Beautiful Mind. As in that film, Howard is fortunate to have in the lead role one of our more sympathetic, more soulful leading men, Russell Crowe, with jug ears and a haircut to show them off, looking as if he could have stepped out of a Lewis Hine photo, walking a steady tightrope between dignity and degradation. Paul Giamatti as the loyal corner man and Bruce McGill as the cold-blooded promoter are dependable supporting players, more so, certainly, than the goofy Craig Bierko as the formidable heavyweight champ. Renée Zellweger, in a sense, can be depended upon, also, to deliver her standard impression of an overfilled balloon.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith, not a remake of Hitchcock's least characteristic work, is a stargazer's delight, if, anyway -- and it's a big if -- you can take delight in gazing at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (lips and more lips), worshipfully photographed by Bojan Bazelli, and pamperingly enshrined in an ambience of pristine showroom opulence. There is space in this firmament for no one else, apart from a small corner for Vince Vaughn and his dimming persona of sociopathic glibness. The two stars (any boost from their off-screen publicity will be greatly appreciated, or at any rate greatly needed) play a husband and wife whose passion has gone out of their marriage after "five or six years," depending on which one you ask. Unbeknownst to either of them, they both happen to be top-level, high-tech assassins for rival espionage agencies, and once this fact becomes known to them they are obliged to turn their sights on each other. If -- another big if -- the situation may shape up for a while as a darkly comic metaphor on the slow death inherent in the conjugal life, this impression, this hope, cannot survive their mutual revelation, after several sincere attempts at pre-emptive annihilation, that their love remains strong, that their passion can be rekindled by means of a common enemy, that their romance after all is not darkly comic, but brightly. And if -- a final big if -- filmmaker Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, to start with) can be seen to have come through The Bourne Identity with his "promise" unbroken -- the promise of a filmmaker with, or on, an edge -- he here undergoes a harder whack on the chisel.

The grin-and-bear-it title of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, an adaptation of a best-selling "tween" novel by Ann Brashares, refers to a clique of four sixteen-year-old girlfriends in Bethesda, Md., linked from the womb in their mothers' prenatal aerobics class, who purchase a pair of thrift-shop jeans that magically fit their dissimilar bodies ("scientifically impossible"), and who mail the garment back and forth as a way to stay in touch during their summer of separation. Repressed, emaciated Lena is off to visit distant relatives on the Mediterranean island of Santorini; lithe, athletic Bridget is off to a Baja soccer camp; chubby, highbrow Carmen is off only as far as South Carolina to meet the new family of her estranged father; and sullen, blue-haired Tibby stays home to work in a Wall-Mart (pseudonymously, Wallmans) and to make a video documentary on misfits and losers (a "suckumentary," in her own coinage). While it deals with matters like divorce, suicide, cancer, and defloration, the drama has a timidity about it that poses no hazard for the target audience (girls a bit younger than the principal foursome), nor for anyone else who might wander into range. Veteran cameraman John Bailey (Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Groundhog Day, etc.) gives it a surface gloss, and plenty of solar glare in Greece and Mexico; and a cartload of pop songs provides emotional cues or comic relief, according to your level of sophistication. Above all, the film serves as a showcase for four young actresses (though only one of them is truly as young as a teenager) to strut their stuff. Alexis Bledel, as Lena, and Amber Tamblyn, Tibby, despite their experience on successful TV shows (Gilmore Girls and Joan of Arcadia, respectively), do not appear to have much stuff to strut. Bledel is so constrained by her patented shy, awkward, self-conscious act that she can never really open up, even after she falls under the spell of a boy-toy Zorba the Greek. (Maybe it's not an act.) And Tamblyn, whom you can pick out from the rest by her resemblance to her father Russ, is no less narrow and monotonous even if less exasperating. America Ferrera, as Carmen, memorable from Real Women Have Curves, ranges easily from sunny smile to cloudy frown in a convincing simulation of complexity. And newcomer Blake Lively, the actual youngest of the group, as the willowy, blond, prom-queeny Bridget, with her Ellen Barkin-ish asymmetrical smile, manifests a not quite flawless beauty (i.e., natural, not surgical) that doesn't blind you to her talent. One shudders at the thought of the dead-teen and horny-teen scripts that will hereafter come tumbling her way.

Lords of Dogtown, an alternative buddy film for the guys, is "inspired by a true story" as well as by Stacy Peralta's documentary of a few years back, Dogtown and Z-Boys, detailing the exploits of the skateboarding pioneers of Venice, Ca., in the mid-Seventies. (Peralta, one of those pioneers himself, wrote the screenplay for this re-enactment, preserving the immortal line from the documentary, "We're gonna be on summer vacation for the next twenty years.") Here again, as in The Sisterhood..., we have a central quartet, teammates under the sponsorship of a surf-shop guru, split apart by the push-and-pull of competition and commercialism, but still bonded forever by the shared experience of honing their skills in the empty swimming pools of Southern California during a year of drought. True stories can be trite, too. The dramatization, needless to say, was not content to be a latter-day Frankie Avalon drive-in movie. It instead gives itself cinéma vérité airs. Catherine Hardwicke, the maker of Thirteen, was enlisted to direct (bringing along her star and creative collaborator on that one, Nikki Reed). And certainly the camerawork is often sloppy enough to pass as unplanned. And the dramatic scenes, so to call them, are underwritten and underformed in favor of a hectic climate of frolicking and carousing. The cast -- John Robinson, of Elephant, Emile Hirsch, Victor Rasuk, an almost unrecognizable Heath Ledger, a makeup-free Rebecca De Mornay -- does nothing to disrupt the pseudodocumentary illusion. (America Ferrera turns up here, too, in a bit-part as a bra-busting groupie.) Any rise in verisimilitude, however, comes with a commensurate rise in tedium.

Marilyn Agrelo's Mad Hot Ballroom is an actual documentary -- a classification no longer synonymous with a box-office hopeless -- on New York City fifth-graders who have been channeled into the stay-off-the-streets-and-stay-out-of-trouble activity of competitive ballroom dancing: "I see them turning into these ladies and gentlemen," one teacher manages to say while fighting back tears. We follow three disparate classes (only one of which will make it through to the citywide finals: "I still really don't understand what happened," a dejected curly top buttonholes the emcee at the quarterfinals, after his team falls three points short), and we follow them with an almost parental tunnel vision: we cannot really judge the competition; we have eyes only for "ours." Kids being kids, however, with no pumped-up heroes or villains (beyond a troublesome student named Jonathan, whose troubles go uninvestigated), this is an easy-to-like film with an easy-to-overlook fuzzy video image. That's just to say that there are more pressing occasions on which to lament the documentary norm nowadays of starting a film from a six-foot hole in the ground.

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