The story of boxer James J. Braddock is improbable enough that most people wouldn’t believe it if they saw it presented in another movie (see also “Rocky III”). Braddock enjoyed success as a light heavyweight in the 1920s, earning a shot at the title (which he lost). Ensuing injuries and the onset of the Great Depression forced him to seek work as a laborer in order to earn a living for his wife and three kids. Given a one-time shot in a warm-up fight for a title contender, Braddock actually defeated his heavily favored opponent, and the next, until he found himself in the unlikely situation of facing heavyweight titleholder Max Baer in 1935 for the championship.
Audiences unfamiliar with Braddock’s amazing comeback might find themselves shaking their heads as events unfold on the screen, which is to director Ron Howard’s advantage. In “Cinderella Man,” Howard’s affinity for schmaltz can be brought to the fore unapologetically (this is a True Story, after all). If this was a work of fiction, wiseass reviewers like yours truly would be sharpening their knives in anticipation of using statements like, “drowns in its own cheese” and, “sickly saccharine sweetness.” And to be sure, Howard never lets an opportunity for the heart to warm go unexplored. In one notable example, Braddock goes before his old acquaintances at the boxing commission, hat in hand, begging for money to have his electricity turned back on so his kids can move back into their home.
Even so, “Cinderella Man” is a very good film. It almost doesn’t seem fair to have it come along so quickly after Million Dollar Baby, because people who hate boxing movies are going to find themselves missing two of the best movies of the last two years. Russell Crowe inhabits the role of Jim Braddock as effortlessly as he did that of “The Insider’s” Jeffrey Wigand (grueling training regimen aside), and is probably a lock for his 4th Best Actor nomination. Crowe drives the film, and also manages to overshadow Paul Giamatti, who plays Braddock’s trainer, Joe Gould.
This isn’t as tough a chore as you might think, as Giamatti has his hands full trying to keep us from thinking about Burgess Meredith.
“Cinderella Man” is full of the sort of iconic moments you’d expect: Braddock looking crestfallen after futile attempts to get picked for day jobs; Braddock arguing with his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger, looking and sounding like a pinch-faced Betty Boop) about sending the kids to live with relatives; Braddock gamely fighting through the pain of a broken hand. All of it (mostly) comes together to tell a story that is in many ways a metaphor for the Depression itself. Does the film give us – as some have put it – a realistic sense of what it was like to live during the time? Beats me, I wasn’t there. Braddock’s environs are convincingly dreary, at any rate, and just about everybody is poor. Does that count?
As a boxing movie, there’s little we haven’t seen before. Braddock trains and meets the press and comes from behind to win his preliminary bouts, all of which lead to the Big Fight at the end. The POV shots are fairly standard, though the fact that the boxers actually box is refreshing to audiences subjected to a decade and a half of “Rocky” movies.
Speaking of which, I made a “Rocky III” reference earlier, and the similarities here are pretty eerie. Both Braddock and Rocky Balboa are former greats brought low by economic hard times and losses, both fighters don’t really have the will to fight until motivated by external factors (Rocky by Apollo Creed, Braddock by his kids), and both men fight opponents who make inappropriate comments to their wives.
Throughout all this, Braddock comes across as no less than a saint. He pays back his public assistance money after winning some purses, stops his drunken buddy Mike (Paddy Considine) from hitting his wife, and is never anything less than polite and self-deprecating, even when goaded by Baer. Again, he’s the kind of character Howard would’ve had to invent, had he not actually existed.
Even when the film makes a misstep, as with an irrelevant union subplot involving Mike, Crowe is always there to get thing back on track. This is his movie, and he carries it skillfully. “Cinderella Man” may be a feel-good movie, but that’s not entirely a bad thing, and perhaps Howard can be forgiven for shamelessly jerking out heartstrings just this once.
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