Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) was a promising heavyweight boxing contender in 1929 who fell victim to the Great Depression, taking his family (including Renee Zellweger) from luxury to poverty in a few short years, and getting himself kicked out of the sport. Unable to find work, Braddock accepts an offer from his former manager (Paul Giamatti) to box in a nothing fight for a small wage. When Braddock wins the fight, he begins a slow climb to the top of the ranks, capturing the imagination of the underdog-loving masses that look to Braddock for inspiration in difficult times.
It's hard to argue the power of a film like "Cinderella Man" (IMDb listing). A Ron Howard-directed crowd pleaser of the highest order, "Cinderella" is a production that is made purely to warm hearts and tickle stomachs. To witness an audience be moved to such lengths as to cheer for the on-screen action (historical events no less), well ... that's a beautiful thing. Yet "Cinderella" isn't the home run one might expect given the tale and the eminence of the talent. It's a fine production, but the film lacks spark where it needs it most: the boxing ring.
The last time Howard, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and actor Russell Crowe got together, they made the 2001 Oscar-winner "A Beautiful Mind," so these guys know a thing or two about classy productions. A visual feast, "Cinderella" doesn't disappoint. From the exquisite Depression-era production design to the muddy, claustrophobic view of the boxing venues, Howard and his team have triumphed again with meticulous detail and epic richness. The actors all benefit from the dynamic look of the locations, making their job of imagination all the more easier.
Speaking of actors, "Cinderella" could not be more blessed in that area. With Crowe's committed performance leading the way with its brave punch-drunk detail and warmly satisfying realization of victory, the supporting talent has all the leeway in the world to achieve incredible work. Renee Zellweger does her best with a second-banana role as "the wife," and her emotions hit the hardest in a movie overflowing with heart-tugging material. It's also hard to deny Craig Bierko's strange affectations as Braddock's nemesis, walloping boxer Max Baer. However, it's Paul Giamatti who ends up delivering the strongest impression in "Cinderella." As Jim's corner man/manager Joe Gould, Giamatti hits all the right notes of anxiety, support, and emotional disguise as he tries to keep his own head above water. It's a joy to see Giamatti tackle two roles (coming off his incredible performance in "Sideways") where nothing requires him to scream or grate intentionally. I hope it's a sign of things to come for this talented actor.
Where Howard falls into major trouble is in the ring. Boxing is a sport covered repeatedly by many filmmakers, and they all try to outfox each other with stylistic choices and rising levels of brutality. There's a good reason why Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" was a flawless piece of work: he kept it simple. Howard isn't that observant, and he needlessly busies up the boxing matches with quick cuts (often on the flashbulbs capturing the fight), which is very reminiscent of Scorsese's dazzling "Raging Bull." Braddock was a creation of a media hungry for a hero in a land of despair, and the flash cutting is meant to suggest the saturation of images from his climb to the top. But this has a noxious effect on the match sequences, rendering them both unintelligible and artistically impotent. "Cinderella" is a film that hinges on the excitement Braddock created in the ring. Yet "Cinderella Man" only seems to create headaches and confusion when it comes time to strap the gloves on.
"Cinderella Man" is endowed with a fairly luxurious running time (140 minutes), and Howard leaves no moment of triumph unexploited. This is a terrific underdog tale told warmly by Howard and his cast, and for all its imperfections, it does one thing right: it puts a smile on your face.
Filmfodder Grade: B