I like Ron Howard's latest offering very much. Cinderella Man has much to recommend it. The story offers a simple heroism (and equally unambiguous bad guy), a quiet patriotism, and a linear structure that all feels very much like a movie from Hollywood's Golden Age. The directing is supremely competent, the beats and stakes and plot-points are all where they should be.
The main performances are stellar - especially from Paul Giamatti, as the main character's manager. Wow. Somebody wrote somewhere that Giamatti perfectly channels a 1930's man, and I was intrigued by that description of a performance. But it's really true and defines his performance here; you just have to experience it. If Giamatti doesn't get an Oscar nod, I give up.
And, of course, there is Russell Crowe, who some how manages to change his whole way of carrying himself with each new part. Honestly, it looked to me like he changed the shape of his head for this part -- even though I know that isn't possible. He is truly the most talented actor of this generation.
Zellweger doesn't have too much to do, but she does it well, as always.
My main problem with Cinderella Man is that it's about boxing. Hence, the heroism of the main character revolves around his success in beating other men's faces to a bloody pulp. As a secondary high-stakes goal, he also sets new standards in hitting hard to the body and breaking ribs. The movie tries to set his heroism up as a man conquering fear...but yeah, he still triumphs by nearly killing other guys. I loved so much of this movie, but I hate, hate, hate watching long sequences in which two men hit each other harder and harder in close-up. I hate watching men spit bloody water into pans. I hate watching other men sop off caked blood from the gladiators' faces. It's exciting to watch in a perverse way. And I hate that.
So, my problem is less with the film here, and more with the sport it showcases. I can't see how boxing is something Christians can defend. Self-defense is morally legitimate, but, as Giamatti's character notes in one scene, "We both know what we are talking about here, and it ain't pugilism."
If you can stand the boxing stuff, this is a good movie which is overall inspirational as far as the human spirit and love of family stuff goes. It is a much better Depression-era piece than was Seabiscuit, basically, because this movie tells the story of the Depression through one family's plight. Seabiscuit did it through those awful, intrusive newsreel intercuts.
But, the best thing I have to say about Cinderella Man is a thought process that was sparked by the movie.
Leaving the theater, I gave the movie a thumbs-up, but I couldn't help feeling something was missing in the piece. I feel this way about most of Ron Howard's movies. ANd that is, there was nothing left for me to do after the movie was over. There was nothing left to puzzle over with friends. The most my friends and I could do was re-experience moments of the film. But there was no thematic stuff for us to argue.
This "total resolution filmmaking" is a particular problem of Howard's, in which he basically doesn't trust his audience is going to get stuff. So, he lays everything all out moment by moment using flashback connections and dialogue. He gets out of scenes just when they start to get ambiguous and sticky. Something is always missing in his movies that keeps you from throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "Hurrah for Karamazov!" And I think I figured out what it is. And this has HUGE ramifications for Act One, if I have any say in it.
What's missing in Cinderella Man, that keeps it from brilliance, is mystery.
Mystery. Something beyond mere material or emotional or psychological cause and effect. Human beings are a kind of creature that seeks to know. And yet, we do not have the ability to fit everything in our heads. So, we are drawn to the One who has all the answers. "We are restless, until we rest in Thee." In other words, we are drawn to mystery because our nature seeks to resolve it.
Hence, there is nothing as unsatisfying for us as a story that leads to the finite. A good story is one that leads to the edges of the infinite. It leads us into the depths and scariness and power of a question, not an answer.
The key to a good story is the way it incorporates mystery.
This is wonderful to me, because it makes mystery "a thing" or at least "an element". The secular mind sees mystery as a vacuum or void.
I can't say more about this right now because it is hitting me like such an incredible epiphany. And I feel reverence about it. Which leads to falling silent. Before a mystery.
P.S. (Added Monday, June 6) More on mystery...
Human beings need stories not to provide answers, but to make us comfortable with our lot in life as limited creatures.
It all goes back to Genesis. The ultimate temptation for every person is the rejection of our dependent creaturehood: "You shall be like gods!" God is the only One for Whom there are no mysteries. For us, on the otherhand, life is a matter of bowing gracefully before the melodies that are too delicate for our hearing, and before immense things that we can only see from one side, and before spiritual realities that our bodies distract us from perceiving, and before very old legacies that are new to us, and before minute complexities that we are too far-sighted to see.
Stories are supposed to acclimate us to the omnipresence of mystery as our lot in life. They are supposed to lead us to the peace that most things are too big for us, and that that is okay. As my friend Karen Hall says, "I may not know the answer, but Somebody does." As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we aren't alone." And this is what we get from stories too. That somebody else has encountered a particular mystery. We are all in this together. So, you don't have to jump off a roof.
As writers, we don't share THE answers, because we will never fully sound any reality. We share "what we know to be true" always aware that our experience and information is the tip of the ice berg. We share something true about living with the mystery. The mystery remains.