Cinderella Man Movie Review
Capturing the same rousing, Depression-era, hero-of-the-underclasses spirit that "Seabiscuit" did in 2003, "Cinderella Man" may be, in many ways, just another boxing movie (training montage here, point-of-view punches there, Big Fight finale), but it's one with an effectively and unabashedly uplifting emotional core. Directed by Ron Howard with a masterful eye for period authenticity (from the boarded-up brick storefronts to the boxers' softly brawny body types), the film's driving force is the never-give-up performance of Russell Crowe, starring as Jim J. Braddock, a one-time heavyweight contender whose career was derailed by a broken hand in the early 1930s. Left to fend for his wife (Rene Zellweger) and three kids by the luck of the draw as a dockside day laborer in Newark, he often couldn't even keep the lights on in their tenement-basement flat.
But after turning up at the New York Boxing Commission's Madison Square Garden offices, literally hat-in-hand looking for a little spare change, his old manager (Paul Giamatti) gets the washed-up pugilist one fight -- filling in at the last minute for an absent boxer against an unbeatable rising star -- that nobody ever imagined Jim might win.
You can guess the rest, even if you aren't familiar with Braddock's celebrated comeback. Yet "Cinderella Man" is awash in character detail that keeps it feeling fresh until hand-wringing tension takes over for the 15-round championship climax against the menacing title-holder Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a hulking brute of a boxer who had killed two men in the ring.
Although Jim is portrayed as a virtual saint of a man (ho nest to a fault, kind even when punishing his kids), Crowe's gut-level personification humanizes him. Coupled with Zellweger's talent that brings heft to the role of the Worrying Wife (refusing to attend or listen on the radio, she waits breathlessly for him to come home from fights), these two provide palpable through-thick-and-thin heart to the Braddocks' marriage.
Howard does have some trouble incorporating a tone-setting subplot about a family friend (Paddy Considine) beaten up for trying to unionize the docks, but the film never drags, even at 138 minutes, and this slight detour does add to the historical context.
Of course, where a boxing movie passes or fails is in the ring, and while Howard doesn't break any new ground in the fight scenes ("Raging Bull" and other influences are keenly felt), he makes good use of camera focus, momentary flashbacks and the blinding white-out of ringside photographers' flashbulbs to show the boxing almost entirely from Jim Braddock's psychological point of view. You can feel his strength and concentration wax and wane -- especially in the Baer bout, which captur es the essence of both fighters' styles.
While the picture's Ron Howard-Russell Crowe pedigree it will probably garner a few obligatory Oscar nods down the road, "Cinderella Man" won't ever be considered among the great boxing movies. But it does captivatingly encapsulate the guts and gumption that made Braddock such an inspiration to the Depression-downtrodden Everyman.