Cinderella Man

directed by Ron Howard (Universal)

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Cinderella Man

Good fighters knows how to find an opponent’s weakness. They root it out, and then exploit it. Had screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman further explored the title character of Cinderella Man, they might’ve discovered a hero with dimension and complexity. Unfortunately, as it is, the screenplay offers Russell Crowe few opportunities to portray Depression-era boxing champ James Braddock with any real depth. The film suffers as a result; it’s a rote, uninspiring biopic that lacks the humanity of Crowe’s last partnership with director Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind.

The story opens in the early years of boxing career and marriage, a period of his life during which he’s making more money than he can spend and is at the top of his game. But good times soon give way to the crash of ’29, and Braddock finds his skill waning and his family living in a ramshackle tenement. The bulk of the film follows Braddock’s struggle to support his family and return to the ring as the Depression persists and age threatens to get the best of his strength.

The burly Crowe certainly looks the part of “The Bulldog of Bergen,” who was a first-generation Irish-American from New Jersey. When Crowe steps in the ring, he leaves no doubt that he’s a boxer, gritty and determined. Outside it, however, he’s too plucky, optimistic, invulnerable. The real-life Braddock was a folk hero celebrated for his rise from poverty and defeat, but here he’s portrayed too cleanly.

Braddock makes his son return a salami the child stole from a butcher; he pays back all the public-relief money he receives; he gives up his share of a meager meal so his daughter can have a second helping; he struggles through hard labor with a broken hand. All these actions cast Braddock as a self-sacrificing hero, but because of this, he’s inaccessible, too perfect to identify with.

In a pivotal scene, Braddock, lacking the money to pay for electricity in his apartment, humbles himself, asking boxing bigwigs for a handout. It’s a painful moment for the proud man, and Crowe plays it touchingly. But the moments of decision are never explored in this film, and for this, it loses something essential—the opportunity to capture the pain of a man who feels physically and emotionally powerless.

Renee Zellweger is even more one-dimensional as Braddock’s wife, Mae. Sporting a less-than-believable Jersey accent and bobbed haircut, Zellweger brings nothing new to the role, riding her characters from Cold Mountain and Chicago into New Jersey and expecting them to hold up. She relies on her singular, pinched facial expression—the one that says “I’m troubled”—to carry her through the movie, but by now it has been wrung dry so dry it’s about to crack— Zellweger just comes off looking silly.

Thankfully, Paul Giamatti, who plays Braddock’s manager, Bob Gould, turns in a more nuanced performance. His elation when Braddock wins a fight is infectious, and his bravado in front of the other members of the boxing world—especially after witnessing his financial struggles—is heart wrenching.

The film climaxes when Braddock fights Max Baer for the world heavyweight championship. The scene—drawn out for a relentlessly tense 15 rounds—is perfectly executed by director Howard. He recognizes the potential of the moment and makes up for two hours of predictable pacing by letting the fight fully play itself out. With Craig Bierko as the sleazy, showboating Baer, and with tight, intense camera work directed by Salvatore Totino, the film ends solidly.

Just as the results of the final fight are a close call, so is the film. Ultimately, Cinderella Man can’t deliver the knockout punch.

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