Fairy tale of the tape proves Crowe right fit for ‘Cinderella Man’
You would expect collaboration by the gifted team of director Ron Howard and master actor Russell Crowe to be a knockout. After all, their last effort “A Beautiful Mind,” took home plenty of trophies. While excellence flows from every frame of “Cinderella Man,” the story of pugilistic legend James J. Braddock feels more like a TKO than a fight-ending roundhouse. As boxing films go, it has neither the naive freshness of “Rocky,” nor the surprising emotional wallop of last year’s “Million Dollar Baby.” (Both were Oscar winners for Best Picture.) Yet this “Cinderella” rouses the spirit and gets the job done.
If the Depression era rags-to-riches tone of Braddock’s true story seems familiar it’s because 2003’s “Seabiscuit” covered similar territory. But “Cinderella Man” has fewer ovation-inducing moments, and fewer colorful characters to boot. But through Howard’s exquisitely polished eye and the arrestingly nuanced abilities of Crowe, the film rarely stumbles and occasionally soars.
From out of Hell’s Kitchen rises the young Braddock, who in 1928 was poised to become boxing’s light heavyweight champion. One broken hand and a Wall Street crash later and our gentle scrapper is forced to look for sporadic work on the Jersey docks. Even amid financial despair, his determination to survive is fueled by his loyal wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), and a promise to his kids to never send them off to live with relatives. When he has to break his promise and then go, literally, with hat in hand to beg for milk money from his boxing associates, the scene softens even the hardest of hearts.
In fact, the first half of the film reinforces Braddock’s goodness and his relationships, and does so in a quiet, reflective way. It’s not until the halfway point of its longish 2 1/2 hours that the film picks up momentum and focuses on the local hero’s comeback, which inspires a nation of luckless laborers and “Hooverville” hardships.
The performances are all strong, most notably Paul Giamatti, who breaks out from the lovable loser persona of his previous work on “American Splendor” and “Sideways,” and gives Braddock’s manager Joe Gould some bite. Craig Bierko is terrific as preening champion Max Baer. Strangely enough, only Oscar winner Zellweger seems miscast. Without the opportunity to use her spunky charm, Zellweger is steady but one-dimensional — a fact that may be attributed to narrow writing. But it is a role one could imagine any number of talented actresses performing just as well, if not better.
Not so for Crowe, who continues to add to a most impressive body of work. Even in a film with plenty of clich?s, Crowe delivers a different kind of boxer. He brings honor to the beautiful science of brutality.
Rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.