Review: Cinderella Man
By Kim Hollis
December 6, 2005
We love to root for the underdog, don't we? North American cinema has a proud tradition of reveling in that fact, from films like Rudy, Dodgeball, The Karate Kid, Rocky and Seabiscuit all tapping successfully into that mindset. This year, we have another such film that like Seabiscuit, trumpets its protagonist as a hero who inspired people who were suffering during the Great Depression. That film is Cinderella Man, a movie I frankly had avoided viewing in theaters due to a sneaking suspicion that it was simply going to be too saccharine for my tastes. I wasn't entirely wrong about its sugary sweetness, but I'm also happy to say that Cinderella Man exceeded my expectations to the point that I would happily recommend it.
Directed by Ron Howard, the film is a biopic of boxer Jim Braddock, who is portrayed by Russell Crowe (a guy who just happens to enjoy using his fists in real life). When the movie begins, the Depression is destroying families and tearing friends apart. Braddock the boxer also finds himself affected, as his career has bottomed out and he is stripped of his boxing license. Forced to take jobs at the docks and to accept public assistance, he does everything he can to keep his family surviving. We're hit over the head a bit with how tough times were, but it's a brief interlude before things actually start to get interesting.
The film's real change for the better comes when Braddock's manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) arrives to offer him a fight that will earn him $250 (a massive bounty in those difficult times). Even though Braddock's wife (Renee Zellweger) has misgivings, he agrees to the conditions, which leads him on a wild upswing that earns him the Cinderella Man nickname and an eventual title bout with Max Baer (Craig Bierko), an imposing boxer who has killed two men in the ring.
Despite the fact that the story is predictable and overblown, the performances make it click for the most part. Russell Crowe, an actor whom I generally dislike, is genial and likable as Braddock. He infuses the character with a real humanity and kindness that is entirely believable. The real treasure of the film, though, is Giamatti. Just as it was a huge disappointment that he was overlooked for Best Actor in last year's Oscars, I'm sure the same thing will unfortunately happen this year with Supporting Actor. He's simply outstanding, adding humor in spots where you might least expect it. His chemistry with Crowe is marvelous, too, and the scenes where they appear together simply sparkle.
Sadly, I can't really say the same for Zellweger, an actress I generally enjoy. Her presence in the film adds little, frankly. The character isn't particularly sympathetic or special, though the children of her character and Crowe were charming. Additionally, Bierko is just way too far over-the-top as Max Baer, who couldn't have been nearly as evil as the film portrayed him (his son, Max Baer Jr., certainly objected to the way he was shown). Perhaps that's just a function of the black-and-white nature of the screenplay, though. Good is good, evil is evil, and the Depression is bad. It's pretty easy to see this is an Akiva Goldsman joint.
Aside from the Crowe/Giamatti dynamic, the other high quality of the film is the way the fight scenes are portrayed. Everything feels deeply real and when violent punches are thrown, you react. Even though you totally know what the outcome is going to be in the end, it's very easy to become very involved in the bouts as they are taking place. Kudos to all involved in making these gritty action scenes the key portion of Cinderella Man.
The film is being released on DVD today, which is cleverly timed to remind those who determine the course of awards season that this film is worthy of some attention. In addition to the film, the set also features commentary with Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth (who co-wrote the script with Goldsman). There are deleted scenes, a featurette about the casting process, and a documentary that features friends and family of Jim Braddock. It's a solid package for a film that is certainly worth checking out.