"It’s like ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ only it’s upbeat."
“Cinderella Man” is the sort of film that takes viewers in obvious directions but does so in such a skillful and earnest way that it makes a virtue of predictability. It’s like riding in a Mercedes to see someone you love.Admittedly, director Ron Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) are obligated to follow the rigid template of 1930s heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock’s career, which could potentially dim their chances for building suspense.
Fortunately, Braddock’s story is so compelling that the inevitable becomes unusually gripping. Howard and his collaborators wisely avoid fudging the record because doing so would be an insult to both the boxer’s legacy and to the audience’s intelligence.
Howard never loses sight of the severity of the Depression and its effects on America (he once directed a documentary on the subject), so “Cinderella Man” has an authenticity that keeps the film consistently engaging.
For those who don’t devour sports history, Braddock (Russell Crowe) had a promising career before the stock market crash of 1929. But a broken right hand gradually sent his professional and personal life into a tailspin. At one point, his talent seemed so spent that he was banned from competing.
While this was certainly a blow to Braddock’s pride, he was still boxing past his prime because he had to support his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and their children. Paying the bills became an almost impossible task, and only his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) still believed in him.
After finding himself in the relief lines and working at the docks despite his boxing injuries, Gould finally gets Braddock into a Madison Square Garden fight with contender Corn Griffin. Braddock lands the bout simply because there are no other eligible opponents. Being out of the game for an extended period, he appears to little more than a punching bag for Griffin.
Needless to say, Braddock had a few surprises waiting for his opponent and for boxing fans across the nation. Howard does a terrific job of paralleling the boxer’s fortunes with those of the nation and helps viewers understand why Braddock eventually became so popular.
By most accounts Braddock was a decent fellow who could punch his seemingly superior opponents into unconsciousness. This creates an interesting challenge for Howard and the screenwriters.
In “Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro kept viewers interested despite Jake La Motta’s repellent personality. Howard and Crowe, on the other hand, manage to make Braddock’s situation credible despite his occasionally saintly acts.
In addition to being a convincing boxer (does that come from his pugnacious off screen reputation?), Crowe makes the larger than life character both human and sympathetic. He has a commanding presence and one of the most subtly expressive faces in the business.
Zellwegger manages to hold her own against him, and Giamatti demonstrates that he can play a likable character with the same finesse that he portrayed a tormented alcoholic wine snob in “Sideways.” This guy is so overdue for an Oscar nomination.
The supporting cast in “Cinderella Man” is remarkably deep with Bruce McGill (“The Insider”) as a no-nonsense boxing kingpin and an intimidating Craig Bierko as Braddock’s formidable opponent Max Baer.
Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino shoot the boxing scenes in a subjective manner that makes the punches hit home and prevents the preordained outcomes from becoming stale.“Cinderella Man” treads on familiar territory (my colleagues at the Kansas City Star have dubbed it “Sea-boxer”) but does so with footwork that would make the real James J. Braddock proud.