Cinderella Man Movie Review
American audiences adore underdog stories, particularly those tied to sports. From Rocky to Seabiscuit, we devour worthy longshots given a chance to reclaim such precious commodities as pride, significance, or the undying love of family. That, and anything with Darth Vader in it.
There's no Sith in Cinderella, but there's plenty of pedigreed talent eager to tell the phoenix-from-the-ashes tale of Depression-era boxing champ James J. Braddock (Crowe), dubbed the Cinderella Man for his uncanny run of victories in the ring against mismatched opponents.
Howard, who teamed with Crowe for the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, opens his film with a confident hand, guiding us through the boxer's back story. Braddock enjoyed early success but lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. It was the start of the man's lengthy sob story, elongated by gratuitous embellishments screenwriter Akiva Goldsman unnecessarily adds for drama.
Around the time of the crash, the boxing commission revokes Braddock's license because he dogs his fights. He's nursing a broken wrist but won't tell the authorities because he needs the cash. He can't feed his kids, and his wife Mae (a comically mopey Renée Zellweger, using an imperfect vaudeville Jersey accent) can't pay the family's bills.
With the help of manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, always good), Braddock earns an invitation back to the ring in 1934, where he goes on an unlikely winning streak. The other boxers that dare to go toe-to-toe with a hungry Braddock (in every sense of the word) simply do not have as much to fight for. The optimistic pugilist's grit and determination all but guaranteed victory, right up until his 1935 title fight against dominant heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko, as smug as he should be).
What can be said? Howard's a fine filmmaker who cranks out a fine film and nothing more. Cinderella cannot, as a whole, match the intensity of the title fight it builds to. It represents meat-and-potatoes moviemaking. There's no spice, so we fill our bellies on story and presentation. Needless trips outside the ring steal the central story's thunder. Braddock's already lengthy comeback bloats with meandering subplots involving Jim's drunken Irish compatriot (Paddy Considine) and the man's troubles at home. The embellishments that continue coming in the final act demolish the inherent sense of feel-good underdog glee, but by then we're hooked so we await the inevitable.
It's not Crowe's best work by a long shot. For the first time, the dependable actor fails to convince me that he's the only one who could play this part. Mel Gibson in his prime would be perfect for Braddock. Zellweger's Chicago co-star, John C. Reilly, might have brought a welcome sorrow to the film's Depression era segments.
Some will argue that Cinderella must contend with the fresh memory of Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning opus, Million Dollar Baby, even though Baby - a much better movie in its own right - had more to do with a trainer's salvation than it did with a boxer's redemption. If anything, Cinderella apes the aforementioned Rocky series, lifting bits and pieces from all five installments. Zellweger models Mae after Talia Shire in the first two films (watch her suffer through her husband's brain-bashing bouts for similar reactions). A pre-fight encounter at a posh eatery between Braddock and Baer sounds just like Clubber Lang bullying Rocky to get in the boxer's head. Baer even hits on Braddock's wife. I begged for Baer to shout in his best Mr. T voice, "Why don't you get with a real man," or "I pity the fool," but he didn't. Yet another disappointment from a film that had the makings of a masterpiece.
We're betting on the little one.
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