Cinderella Man (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Consider Cinderella Man to be a Depression era Rocky. While that may at first seem like a glib way to describe Ron Howard's rags-to-riches boxing drama, a careful examination of the storyline reveals numerous similarities between this drama and Sylvester Stallone's Oscar winner. Perhaps that's because the formula associated with boxing movies demands a sameness. Whatever the reason, the specter of Rocky hovers over Cinderella Man like a restless thing. During the concluding moments, if you close your eyes, you can almost hear Apollo Creed gasping, "No rematch!"

This is based on a true story, although, thankfully, Howard doesn't come right out and say it. The opening caption references a quote by Damon Runyon, but that's as close as the director comes to saying that the movie is a bio-pic. From the accounts of Jim J. Braddock's career I can find, Cinderella Man offers a reasonably accurate portrayal of what happened in the ring. I can't speak to how correct the depictions of Braddock's home life are. Although the movie is entertaining and succeeds in its goal as a feel-good experience, it does not rank in the top echelon of Howard's films. Overlong and unevenly paced, Cinderella Man hits stretches (especially between bouts) when it threatens to lose its audience.

The movie opens in November 1928. The "Bulldog of Bergen," Jim J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), is an up-and-coming light heavyweight fighter who is on his way to becoming a challenger for the championship. After every fight, his loving wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), waits for him at the front door to their house, since she can't bear to watch him in the ring. Following this brief introductory section, Cinderella Man jumps ahead five years. The country is mired in the Great Depression, and Jim's fortunes haven't been better than those of the country in general. He is a has-been who only gets a few dollars a night for participating in second-rate bouts. When he breaks his hand, his career appears to be over, and he goes to work as a longshoreman. However, with day jobs being unreliable and low-paying, he and Mae soon lose the electricity in their apartment, a situation that endangers the health of their children. A chance at redemption occurs when his former manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), offers him $250 to fight on short notice with a heavyweight contender. Jim is expected to lose, and lose badly, but he confounds the experts, and his June victory over Corn Griffith propels him on the fast lane to a shot at the title against a ferocious and heavily-favored opponent, Max Baer (who has previously killed two inferior boxers).

Borrowing liberally from Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), Howard creates boxing sequences that are as brutal as they are compelling. When Jim is in the ring, Cinderella Man is never boring. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all the connective material which is intended to form the movie's backbone. The scenes that show Jim as a loving husband and father, and depict him as a good friend to his equally down-on-his-luck pal, Mike (Paddy Considine), are trite. Instead of developing the main character into a fully three-dimensional individual, they serve only to drag out the running time. Cinderella Man is a decent 105-minute movie that has been stretched to fill nearly 2 1/2 hours.

One non-boxing scene stands out as being worth the celluloid it was printed on. When he reaches rock bottom, Jim faces the possibility of having to send his children to stay with relatives. Yet he has promised his oldest son, Jay (Connor Price), that he would not do this. So, in order to raise the money to re-connect the electricity, he goes to a club frequented by his old boxing confederates, many of whom are high-rollers. With hat in hand (literally), he asks for donations. It's a moving sequence that brings home some of the hard reality of life in the 1930s.

There's nothing wrong with the acting, although most of the participants have done more impressive work in the past. Russell Crowe, working with the director for the first time since A Beautiful Mind, is effective as Jim both inside and out of the ring. Renée Zellweger, who has already looked "frumpy" as Bridget Jones, tries on "mousy" for this role. A spark of energy comes from Paul Giamatti, who has a solid chance of being nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Joe Gould (if only because the Academy will feel that they owe him for 2004's Sideways snubbing).

The period details are impeccable. Howard goes to great pains to convince us that we're back in the Depression. From his re-creation of the old Madison Square Garden to the infamous "Hooverville," this feels like the 1930s. Unfortunately, the by-the-numbers script, which hits every boxing cliché with far less effectiveness than other contenders (such as the aforementioned Rocky), doesn't do the other aspects of the production justice. True story or not, Cinderella Man seems like the uncomplicated fairy tale its title hints at. This is 2005's Seabiscuit, an inspirational, "adult" drama thrown into theaters in the midst of the summer's blockbusters. As counter-programming, it may be successful, but as entertainment, it's on the bubble. To use a boxing metaphor, it lands a few solid punches, but never achieves anything close to a knock-out.

Cinderella Man (United States, 2005)

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Connor Price, Paddy Considine, Paul Giamatti
Screenplay: Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:24
U.S. Release Date: 2005-06-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1