Showing a lack of imagination and a willingness to mine every applicable sports cliché that is stunning in several senses of the word, Ron Howard has taken one of the greatest comeback stories ever and turned it into a cloying bit of fluff. CINDERELLA MAN is handsomely mounted, steeped in period art direction, and features actors attempting to construct a third dimension to their characters with little more to work with than grit and hope. Like the crowds that cheered the underdog hero of this story, cinema audiences might find themselves feeling the same way, hoping against hope that something good will come of all this. It won’t.
That story is of Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), a light-heavyweight contender in the late 1920s who was living the good life in the suburbs with a doting wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger) and a cherubic son until a fighting slump and the Great Depression sent him, his loyal wife and his now three cherubic children to the tenements of New Jersey. It’s a precarious existence where there isn’t quite enough food for everyone in the family to get that nice full feeling. That hasn’t soured Mae on Jim, nor has a series of broken bones soured Jim on boxing. He may not be in the big leagues anymore, but he can pick up a few dollars filling out a card in obscure venues with his loyal manager/ sidekick, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) giving him the same pep talks he gave him when the dough was rolling in. Unfortunately, one too many bouts with a broken hand get his de-certified and with work scarce and mouths to feed, things go downhill very quickly. Until fate intervenes to give Jim and Joe another shot at the big time. Such was the impact of his struggle that he was dubbed the “Cinderella Man” from which the title was derived. And, yes, even the characters in the film think its a little girly.
Crowe does a yeoman’s job here, running the gamut from cocky young fighter, to the guy discarding the last shreds of his dignity begging for enough cash from the boxing elite who discarded him in order to keep his kids from freezing to death in the harsh New Jersey winter. The later Jim, though, is a one-note guy, perhaps because Howard uses flashbacks to show why the guy keeps taking a punch when lesser men would have been sensible and stayed down for the count. It’s as though he doesn’t think the viewer will remember the dire straits the Braddocks were in just 30 minutes ago. Zellweger doesn’t get even that much to work with. Her role consists of looking adoringly at Crowe even when she’s begging him not to take on the champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko) because said champ has already killed two guys in the ring. Sure, she has a million-watt smile, but when her only choices are that and the dimpled scowl that signals worry, even that loses its charm and impact. Exacerbating the situation is that virtually every line of dialogue she’s given is a variation on the theme of “I believe in you, Jimmy.” Actually, except for Baer and the smarmy boxing promoter who originally casts Jimmy out, that’s everyone’s dialogue.
This is why the most interesting person in the film is Baer. Bierko plays him as a
sociopath with a big goofy grin, enormous appetites, and an appalling lack of style. He doesn’t just dominate the ring in the so-so boxing sequences, he dominates any room into which he comes by virtue of his sheer presence. In second place is Giamatti as Gould, a doughty true-believer who manages to take the pat storyline to interestingly neurotic places with a barely perceptible twitch that signals the only thing approaching doubt on screen. He also has the uncanny knack of being able to seem to actually swell with pride when his guy comes through. As for Paddy Considine, one of the best actors working today, his role is reduced to an object lesson serving the politics of the film, viz. to wit., unions are bad, the government can be trusted, and deviating from that philosophy will get you into trouble of your own making.
James J. Braddock’s story was a favorite of Damon Runyon’s. And there is much to be said for a guy willing to allow his brains to be pureed into mousse for the sake of keeping his family afloat. But in the hands of Howard and company, the telling of the tale is rendered into such an unimpeachable hagiography that there is no point of reference with which the audience can identify. Worse, it makes rooting for him seems almost presumptuous, as though it would demonstrate a lack of the proper and unflagging faith that the audience is reminded at every turn and is Jimmy’s right and his due. It’s an interesting artistic choice, but, alas, the wrong one.