Cinderella Man is the true story of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), a champion boxer in the early part of the 20th century. When the film opens, we see Braddock in the ring, enjoying the successful knockout of an opponent. After the fight, he returns to his spacious home where wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and children wait for him. The shot dissolves into another that takes place four years later, when the Great Depression is in full swing. Braddock’s nice home has turned into a dingy basement apartment and his fancy suit has been replaced by worn-out clothing. Meanwhile, Mae fills a milk bottle with water to make it last longer, and the children complain of hunger.
Due to a broken right hand, Braddock can no longer fight. The boxing commission revokes his license because of his inability to put on a “show.” His trainer, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), is still a friend, but there’s little Joe can do. To make ends meet, Braddock works occasionally at a local dock. It’s still not enough to pay all the bills. His lowest point is reached when he wanders back into Madison Square Garden and humbly begs for money from his former employers.
Luck turns around when Joe shows up one day with an offer. One of the opponents in a major upcoming title fight has bowed out due to illness. The commission needs someone to fill in at the last second. Joe explains that no “legitimate” boxer will step in so quickly without a formal training period. In other words, this is Braddock’s chance to make a few bucks for a one-time fight. To everyone’s astonishment, he actually wins the world heavyweight championship. (During his time on the docks, his left hand gains strength, which helps in the ring.) Suddenly, Jim Braddock is on top again.
This is the kind of movie actors dream about because the roles are so juicy. Russell Crowe does a superb job playing Braddock. His performance is one of quiet determination. No matter how dire things get, Braddock refuses to go down for the count. He steadfastly clings to the idea that his family’s luck will eventually improve. This is the type of role at which Crowe excels. The actor always projects a natural self-confidence that makes us believe in his ability to survive. (Gladiator and Master and Commander show other sides of this ability.)
I liked the other performances too. Renee Zellweger does not play a stereotypical “wife role” here. Where Braddock is the dreamer who refuses to surrender the dream, Mae is the practical one. She prepares for any situation that may arise. There’s an interesting dynamic between Braddock and Mae near the end; she fears he will be hurt or killed in the ring, whereas he sees fighting as the most logical way to dig the family out of its financial hole. When he does step in the ring, she can’t even listen on the radio because it’s too painful to think of him getting punched. Zellweger completely sells that idea. She makes Mae a very influential character in the story because, in a lot of ways, she’s the moral center.
Paul Giamatti is also outstanding as Joe Gould. After turning in flawless performances in American Splendor and Sideways, Giamatti takes a supporting role this time but does an equally great job with it. Joe is a true friend who looks out for Braddock even while his own fortunes are starting crumble. When Braddock starts winning, Joe’s luck changes as well. Although the emphasis is typically on Braddock, Giamatti really conveys the feeling that Joe is elated by how his fate shifts.
Cinderella Man is obviously a great – and inspirational – story. It’s hard (perhaps impossible) not to be moved by Jim Braddock’s life. But the film is not the Oscar-caliber masterpiece it’s being sold as. The boxing scenes are competent but lack the emotional weight of those in Raging Bull or, more recently, Million Dollar Baby. The movie also wants to depict how Braddock came to represent faith for those hardest hit by the Great Depression, but it never achieves the resonance of Seabiscuit, which accomplished that same goal brilliantly.
The reason for these shortcomings is that Cinderella Man follows the underdog formula a little too closely. Even though it’s based on a true story, the tone of the movie often felt like it was adhering to all the clichés of the age-old formula. Here’s just one example: there is an utterly useless subplot involving Braddock’s friendship with an alcoholic (Paddy Considine) whom he works with at the docks. The character fills a stereotypical role – to illustrate where Braddock would be if he succumbed to negativity – and the subplot ends predictably. It’s just about impossible to care about this character because we know exactly the function he will serve almost from the moment he comes on screen. There’s almost always such a character in the underdog formula – someone sacrificial to inspire the hero to hang in there at a crucial moment.
I think director Ron Howard also undersells the Great Depression. While the movie certainly depicts some of the struggles involved with sudden, unrelenting poverty, this has got to be the prettiest portrait of the Great Depression committed to screen in some time. The ugliness and destitution are lushly filmed, with Thomas Newman’s reassuring score in the background. This is by no means a criticism of Ron Howard; I greatly admire his body of work, and thank goodness someone out there still makes unapologetically uplifting films. That said, Howard may not be as good a match for the material as he seems on the surface. The tone of Cinderella Man continually made me feel that no matter how bad it looks, the characters will all be okay. That feeling diminished the impact of Braddock’s ultimate victory. (I knew the happy outcome of Seabiscuit in advance as well, but director Gary Ross conveyed the sense of loss that accompanied the Great Depression more effectively for me.)
All this really means is that Cinderella Man is a good film instead of a great one. This is still a compelling story with first-rate performances. And, in total fairness, Ron Howard knows how to send you out of a theater feeling good. The movie really comes alive in its final third, when Braddock prepares to take on Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a fierce boxer who has already killed two men in the ring. Watching their rivalry develop – first outside the ring, then in it – is compelling. This is the part of the movie where Howard can really work his magic because we’re seeing the underdog come alive. It might not move your soul, but it at least puts a smile on your face.
The bottom line is that Cinderella Man is not a classic, not a serious Oscar frontrunner. However, it is a solid, inspirational piece of entertainment that’s worth seeing for some terrific acting and a pleasant (if not haunting) feeling of uplift.
( out of four)
Cinderella Man is rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 14 minutes.
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