"Cinderella Man" tells James J. Braddock's story, but it does not share the boxer's confidence. While the real-life Braddock had enough belief in himself to accomplish miracles in the ring, this filmed biography's reluctance to have faith in its intended audience undercuts its chances to deliver complete satisfaction.
Certainly this true story of a heavyweight champion so unlikely he lifted Depression-weary hearts, a saga already being referred to as "Fistbiscuit" because of its parallels to a certain celebrated horse, is hard to improve on for innate drama. The Times of London said "it makes 'Rocky' look like reality TV," and writer Damon Runyon, who knew a tale or two himself, insisted, "In all the history of the boxing game, you'll find no human interest story to compare."
Russell Crowe in the title role, "Cinderella Man" also has an actor you never want to bet against, no matter what the odds. In fact, Crowe's impressive work as Braddock, his ability to bring integrity as well as skill to his performance, demonstrates why he's the most accomplished actor of his generation's major stars, someone whose ability makes this film succeed more than it should.
Set against the virtues of story and star are "Cinderella Man's" other, more problematic elements. For one thing, the fighter was far from dramatic ("not a very interesting guy" is producer Brian Grazer's candid description) outside the ring. For another, so much time is spent inside the ring that viewers may start to feel battered themselves. And then there is costar Renée Zellweger, who gives one of her more mannered, unconvincing performances as Braddock's loyal and loving wife, Mae.
But the real difficulty is the sensibility of director Ron Howard. After a brief flirtation with the dark side with his sadly underrated western "The Missing," Howard is back making feel-good movies, and doing so with an earnestness that is counterproductive. Like the stereotypical Jewish mother who hampers appetites by insistently prodding children to "eat, eat," Howard hurts our ability to enjoy this good story by pushing its plot points too insistently.
While it is in the nature of the filmmaking process to manipulate the audience, working with his screenwriter of choice, "A Beautiful Mind's" Akiva Golds-man (who here rewrote original writer Cliff Hollingsworth), Howard pulls strings so obviously it makes even reality resemble a setup. "Cinderella Man's" key emotional moments feel as if they've been predigested for an audience that can't be trusted to feel things for itself but needs to be firmly albeit lovingly pointed in the appropriate direction.
This overprotectiveness even extends to the film's look. Though cinematographer Salvatore Totino says in the press notes that "Ron wanted to draw out the grittiness of the period," the beautifully shot Braddock family never look other than glossy Hollywood poor no matter how dire their circumstances get. The setting brings to mind one of biographer A. Scott Berg's stories about producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was observed removing trash from the set of the Lower East Side drama "Dead End" and muttering, "There won't be any dirty slums — not in my picture!"
Things are considerably less grim when "Cinderella Man" begins in 1928. The economy is booming and so is the career of Braddock, New Jersey's celebrated "Bulldog of Bergen" who happily returns to his wife, three kids and cozy single family home after another victory under the tutelage of manager-trainer Joe Gould (a solid Paul Giamatti).
Cut to 1933. Four years into the Depression, the Braddocks, though still in love, are living hand to mouth in a dingy basement flat. Bad as things are, they soon get worse. After a particularly unimpressive performance in which he breaks his right hand, the fighter is dramatically told by promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) that his license to box is being revoked. In reality, the injured Braddock retired, possibly because he heard a revocation was in the offing, but nuances like those are not what a film like this is about.
Determined to feed his family no matter what, Braddock gets work at "On the Waterfront"-type shape-ups on the Jersey docks, where his hands get strengthened and he meets Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), a down-on-his-luck leftist who is meant to stand in for all the radicalized regular guys who lost their jobs in the Depression.
And just because times are tough, don't think Braddock is the type to walk away from his parental responsibilities. He's the kind of father we all wish we had, progressive enough to teach his little girl how to box but still deeply committed to traditional values. "No matter what happens," he lectures his oldest son, "we don't steal. Not ever." No matter how conventional "Cinderella Man's" dramatic situations are, Crowe has the gift to make them convincing. He is the rare matinee idol who can transform, can actually become other people. The situations may be cornball or contrived, but if Crowe is selling, we are buying, no questions asked.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Zellweger, who does not bring the same level of conviction to the fighter's spouse. Not the first actress to have trouble staying on the screen with Crowe (only "Beautiful Mind's" Jennifer Connelly really succeeded), Zellweger's Mae gets more twitchy and irritating as her husband's fortunes improve and a championship fight with the threatening Max Baer (an engaging Craig Bierko) looks possible. The actress ends up trying too hard to be believable in situations that ought to be second nature.
But then, going too far in restating the obvious is what shortchanges "Cinderella Man's" virtues from the opening bell to the close.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language
Times guidelines: More boxing battering than audiences may be expecting
A Universal Pictures release. Director Ron Howard. Producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Penny Marshall. Screenplay Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Story by Cliff Hollingsworth. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino. Editors Mike Hill, Dan Hanley. Costumes Daniel Orlandi. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Wynn Thomas. Art directors Peter Grundy, Dan Yarhi. Set decorator Gordon Sim. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes.
In general release.