Cinderella Man (2005) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some language
Running Time: 144 min.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman
Review published June 10, 2005
Based on a true story, Cinderella Man is Hollywood formula filmmaking at its finest. While there aren't many major surprises, the film still excels thanks in large part to the professionalism and skill of everyone involved in making it. It may not give you the most mileage for your dollar, but there's no doubt that this is one well-oiled machine, intricately constructed with precision and care to be an uplifting, crowd-pleasing triumph. Even grinches will most likely concede that it works, and works quite well, delivering exactly the right build-up for a riveting finale, and even if you know the full story going in, the pleasure is in the way the story is told, and not just the destination.
The film is set in the late 1920s to mid 1930s, where boxer James J. Braddock (Crowe, Master and Commander) has seen his days as a professional boxer collapse when he tries desperately to fight with injuries to his right hand. The Great Depression is all around, and with jobs as scarce and as low paying as they are, Braddock continues to try to box for money despite losing more often than he wins. The boxing commission finds out and suspends his license to box, leaving Braddock with a broken hand, a wife (Zellweger, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) and three kids to feed, and not enough money to pay the electricity. He struggles to keep the family together, piling on grueling days where he will work for hours despite the injury, only to still not be able to cover his debts. Braddock catches a slight break that would change his life, when his ban on boxing is temporarily lifted so he can be a last minute replacement to fight one of the top contending boxers in the country. Thus begins a fairy tale story of how one man's luck can change overnight, through perseverance, hard work, and a willingness to lay everything on the line now that he has something to fight for.
Director Ron Howard (The Missing, A Beautiful Mind) scores big going straight to the heart of populist filmmaking, pulling out old-fashioned styles from his bag of tricks to tug at our heartstrings and make Braddock the everyman hero we can all rally behind. Thanks in large part to a stellar performance by Russell Crowe, Braddock ends up being one of the most brave and entirely likeable characters in recent memory, with situations so heartbreaking that it's hard not to be emotionally stirred when he finally sees some long overdue success.
The supporting characters are also fantastic. Renee Zellweger turns what could have been a thankless role as the long-suffering wife and makes her a very sympathetic and influential character in the story. Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Paycheck) also delivers a great performance as Joe Gould, Braddock's mentor and manager, who is driven purely out of his love for an honest and noble man, and not for the money. Craig Bierko (I'm with Lucy, The Thirteenth Floor) beefs up for the role of the daunting champion Max Baer, who is painted to be the heavy of the story, quite menacing and cocky in a way that makes him unlikable, but in a nuanced way that lets you know that underneath the tough exterior, much of it is a lot of bark to antagonize his opponents into fear and intimidation.
If there's a slight weakness to the piece, it's the pat screenplay, which takes an already inspirational story and dissects it almost completely into a well-established underdog formula like so many other films of a similar nature have been in the past. While Braddock's comeback is a matter of public record, this is the kind of movie that still feels very much like a fictional work, with all of the story manipulations and rise-and-fall plotting you would expect, proceeding perfectly according to plan.
Still, though it is a mechanical crowd-pleaser underneath, the performances, direction, and the gorgeous music (another fantastic job by Thomas Newman) are so on-target that this is still quite easily one of the best films of 2005. This is quintessential old school filmmaking that still works well for today's audiences. Who says they don't make 'em like they used to?
©2005 Vince Leo