Cinderella Man Review
By Joe Lozito
The "Cinderella" Story
The most amazing thing about the James Braddock story is that it hadn't been filmed already. In fact, Ron Howard's Braddock biopic "Cinderella Man
" opens with a quote from Damon Runyon which states (in so many words) that Braddock's life story is the stuff of legend. It turns out Mr. Runyon, who coined the nickname from which the film gets its title, is not too far off. The events of Mr. Braddock's life could have just as easily been concocted from a screenwriter's head. Sadly, many of the events have been in previous, and sometimes superior, underdog sports movies.
The film opens in the late 1920s when Braddock was a light heavyweight favorite who'd never been knocked out. During the Depression, Braddock loses everything and ends up living in a basement apartment with his wife Mae and their three kids. With a broken right hand and his boxing career washed up, Braddock is literally scraping to get by until fate comes knocking in the form of One Last Fight. The film's conceit is that the Depression gave Braddock something to fight for and, therefore, a renewed vigor in the ring.
It's appropriate that the film takes place during the Depression since Russell Crowe is almost slumming it as Braddock in a needlessly teary script by Cliff Hollingsworth and Ron Howard go-to-guy Akiva Goldsman. Mr. Crowe could play Braddock in his sleep. His toughest job is to convince the audience that he can be beaten. He has almost made a career of playing sturdy heroes. Thankfully, as he proves time and again, Mr. Crowe is a stunningly watchable and talented actor. His Braddock is a good man fighting for his family during a time without hope.
Mr. Crowe is able to rise above not only the script's egregious tearjearking, but also the presence of Renee Zellweger as Mae. I've asked it before and I'll ask it again: who keeps casting this woman? The role of Mae Braddock, Jim's loyal and strong wife, is a plumb opportunity to showcase the talents of some deserving actress, but Ms. Zellweger gives another one of her smirking, squinting performances. She all but drags down each scene, making it Mr. Crowe's burden to bring the film back up to par.
Thankfully the always-reliable Paul Giamatti is on hand (as Braddock's longtime manager and friend Joe Gould) to give Mr. Crowe someone to play off of. Their scenes together are the highlight of the film. Well, those scenes and the boxing scenes, which owe more than a little thanks to "Raging Bull". Obviously, Mr. Howard has been studying the best. The fights have that same visceral up-close-and-personal intensity that Martin Scorcese all but pioneered in that perennial 1980 classic.
Ron Howard has proven that he can do well with true stories. While his crowning glory may still be "Apollo 13", he and Mr. Crowe (and Mr. Goldsman, for that matter) did excellent work together previously with "A Beautiful Mind". This is a welcome darker turn for the director formerly known as Opie and he does some nice work bringing a Depression era New York to life. Mr. Howard's solid but pedestrian direction keeps the film moving, but comparisons to similar stories abound in everything from "Raging Bull" to "Rocky IV" (Braddock is given an unbeatable opponent who has killed in the ring). "Cinderella Man" is a contender, but it's not exactly a knock out.