Good Sports, Bad Sports

'Dogtown' skates; 'Cinderella Man' throws in the towel

There are significant if not satisfying reasons why Lords of Dogtown and Cinderella Man exist. Not enough young Americans (speaking monetarily) can be convinced to see a low-budget skateboarding documentary; hence, Stacy Peralta's fine Dogtown and Z-Boys is rewritten by Peralta as a feature, with Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke switching to the coming-of-age drama of boys. As for Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger, "Rocky meets Seabiscuit!" strikes some people as a positive notion. ("Man, true story: A former boxer-turned-dock worker stormed back in 1935 to win the heavyweight title!") My respective doubts peaked on my way in to see Lords of Dogtown and on my way out of Cinderella Man; within the realm of cynical remakes, I guess I prefer pubescence to pugilism.

"The problem with boxing movies," my friend Jill says, "is that there's so much boxing." And the problem with Cinderella Man is that the boxing is the most convincing part of the movie. If only Howard had used some of the time spent getting visceral rock 'em sock 'em to construct a more complex Depression-era story. (As usual, he tries to please all comers, leading with a rich-against-poor hook, then sucker-punching with Horatio Alger: Every good boy deserves bucks.) He could've given a more interesting flaw to his comeback kid James J. Braddock than a case of bad luck. He might've even employed those special effects (blows appearing as light-bulb flashes) to create a character from Zellweger's mouth pursings.

Then again, whether they're the wives of astronauts, physicists, or boxers, Howard's women mostly get to stand around wringing their hands. I can hardly blame Zellweger for being a terrible whiner--especially as she has to witness Crowe playing yet another heroic warrior. This time, Crowe's character struggles not against his mind, but his body, various boxing straw men, and, most curious, a situation--the Depression--brought about here not necessarily by the machinations of the rich, but by something more ephemeral: more bad luck. (One announcer spouts, "Braddock's comeback is giving hope to every American.")

Cinderella Man swoons over the boxer's "traditional" masculinity--strength, whiteness, a commitment to provide--and, for good measure, adds "New Man" traits of fatherly affection, emotional vulnerability, and habitual nonviolence (outside the ring). Crowe makes the paragon watchable, for sure: His Braddock is no paper saint, but a creature of blood and bone with hurt and determination writ on every sinew. But watching the actor be this downtrodden guy who returns to fight for the downtrodden is like seeing a Russell Crowe masturbation video. (Okay, maybe it's not that exciting.) Braddock's last opponent here, heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), is ridiculously demonized for being a Hollywood player. As if Crowe, Howard, and producer Brian Grazer are not?

An end title quotes Joe Louis, Braddock's famous successor, to the effect that Braddock was the "most courageous man" he ever fought. But a little internet research finds that Braddock, during negotiations for the Louis fight, asked for and got 10 percent of the rising star's future earnings. Call that clause "courageous"--or "outrageous," a kind of slavery--but in any case it doesn't fit Howard's picture of the "pure" self-made man.

On the brighter side, Paul Giamatti does the best acting of his career as Braddock's savvy, fast-talkin' manager. I was beginning to think Giamatti had one sour note in him, but his performance here runs the scale. Like Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind, Giamatti juices Crowe--and the star returns the favor. With Howard around, The Celluloid Closet will never lack for material for a sequel.

Lords of Dogtown celebrates masculinity with equal enthusiasm, but much less pontification. The film follows three scruffy would-be surfers who in 1975 begin to transform skateboarding from a circumscribed sport like ice skating into the Mountain Dew™ extremity we know so well today. As such, it's a cautionary tale about the co-optation of street culture--a message well covered by Dogtown and Z-Boys. But the fun and the energy here are in the discovery of flight: leaping off the edge of what's considered possible...and landing, crazy with triumph and relief, hot to do it again, even further this time.

Hardwicke and her hands-on cinematographer Elliot Davis are down in the midst of that action from the reckless start. Peralta (played by John Robinson, the blond kid from Elephant), Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk from Raising Victor Vargas), and Jay Adams (The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys' Emile Hirsch) jump out of windows and off roofs in the early dawn, sliding their skinny skateboards up and over alley debris and down steep hills to the grungy cove that only local surfers can access. The camera rides with them, low and fast, "Voodoo Chile" humping alongside; what with the slinky hair and the Levi's, the thrill is almost too much. The guys have yet to explore the ramifications of polyurethane wheels and empty swimming pools, and the bull is already out of the barn.

Hardwicke sees how adolescents--particularly boys--use their bodies to act out emotion; that physicality is her guide. (Dialogue is downright dumb.) Characterization builds from the body out: Stiff Stacy is a prig; slinky Tony comes off a bit pliable; Jay is explosive, charismatic, and as (self-) destructive as fire. Rebecca de Mornay amazes as Jay's stoned, ground-down mom. Heath Ledger, as the drunk surfer who first recognizes the boys' (cash cow) potential, is nearly as unrecognizable behind his shades, belly, and slurred drawl. The movie's third act, like its subjects, slumps into skate-star cameos and sentimentality; until then, Lords rides the rail, taut and breathless, with enough (PG-13) style to make the Stooges and fitted jeans cool again.

 
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