"Prize fighting lives by its heavyweight champion," writes John D. McCallum in "The World Heavyweight Boxing Championship." "The sport is a dormant giant that explodes into life only a few times a year with that magical phrase: Heavyweight Championship Bout."
With "Cinderella Man," Ron Howard throws his hatand Russell Croweinto summer's squared circle with a Depression-era boxing drama.
"Cinderella Man" casts itself in the "Seabiscuit" moldi.e., one man (one horse) rises above the economic devastation of the Depression and gives a nation hope. It was too much to ask of a stubby-legged horse, and it's too much for Crowe and Howard.
Still, they've chosen a fascinating story, even if the original boxer Jim Braddock wasn't as flamboyant a heavyweight as say, Jack Dempsey or John L. Sullivan. The New York Times' boxing scribe John Kiernan called Braddock "Plain Jim" in reflection of his reserved demeanor.
Braddock's assets, however, included an absolute dedication to his family, a powerful right hand and an uncanny ability to take a beating in the ring. The Irishman's talent came from his thick skull and an ironclad force of will. A pugilist of subtlety he was not.
Nor, for that matter, is Howard a filmmaker of subtlety. The laconic first half of "Cinderella Man" verges into soap-opera territory with Braddock's deterioration as a fighter and his struggle to feed his family with watered-down milk and paper-thin deli meat. He can't get dock work and he's stripped of his boxing license.
But it feels like we've seen this before, and it's not just because you could substitute horse race footage for fight footage and call it "Seabiscuit." Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino use time-worn cinema codes for the Depression, including a grainy sepia tone that's become visual shorthand for the 1930s. If that's not enough, Crowe walks over a newspaper with headlines proclaiming the nation's unprecedented unemployment rate.
Howard's relentless and flatfooted attack on our sympathies slips into monotony as the first half drags on for longer than it should as we're told over and over that people were poor, very poor. Depressed even. Because it was the Depression.
Despite all this, Crowe turns in a powerful, sinewy performance that both taps into his reputation as an off-screen brawler and the masculine fragility he demonstrated in "A Beautiful Mind." As Braddock hits rock bottom, he's forced to return to the Madison Square Garden parlor, where he begs for money to turn his heat back on, and thus be able to retrieve his kids from relatives' homes. It's a scene so uncomfortable, so well-executed that you want to look away from Braddock's humiliation in front of his former peers, even though you're aware of your tears being jerked.
Renee Zellwegger plays Braddock's wife, Mae, a nervous mother of three who can't bear to see her husband fight. As a couple, Zellwegger and Crowe share sparks but no real fire.
Ultimately, it's Paul Giamatti ("Sideways"), playing Braddock's manager Joe Gould, who shines. In another actor's hands, Gould would just be a secondary character lost in Crowe's shadow, but Giamatti outshines his co-stars at times with his Everyman looks and delivery.
Even with these strengths, "Cinderella Man" can't rise above its uninspired, fairy-tale dialogue that clunks against the ear. Example: As Mae gives her husband a final pep talk before his heavyweight shot against Max Baer (an excellent Craig Bierko), she tells himin a thick, faux-Jersey accent"You are the champion of my heart."
In that last fight, Howard finds his rhythm and starts the sweat and spittle flying. His rousing, adrenaline-injected pacing will have you cheering and perched on your seat, but only after two hours of being slumped into it.
Directed by Ron Howard; screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman; cinematography by Salvatore Totino; production design by Wynn Thomas; music by Thomas Newman; edited by Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill; produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Penny Marshall. A Universal Pictures and Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:24. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense boxing violence and some language).
Jim Braddock - Russell Crowe
Mae Braddock - Renee Zellweger
Joe Gould - Paul Giamatti
Max Baer - Craig Bierko