Cinderella Man (2005)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko
Directed By: Ron Howard
I had some hope for this film, since I've yet to see a sub-par Russell Crowe movie (I've yet to see Proof of Life), and the promos were giving it a Rocky meets Seabiscuit vibe, and I dug those flicks. Also, I've enjoyed, if not loved, other Ron Howard films, so I figured I was in all right hands. At the very least, I was hoping to see some good boxing action. Who knows? Maybe it would even live up to the way-too-early Oscar hype it's gotten.
Well, not quite. If this film had true Oscar-potential, it wouldn't be coming out in June. In fact, a good reason to release such a film in June is to get reviews that call it the best film of the year so far, because it looks like high art in comparison to films such as Madagascar, Star Wars, and The Longest Yard. It's a solid film with some excellent performances, but it's no Best Picture contender. At best, star Russell Crowe could get a nomination if this ends up a down year for movies, or Paul Giamatti could get a Best Supporting Actor nomination as recognition for his recent work, along with his excellent work in this film.
Crowe and Giamatti are easily the highlights of this film, and without them, it would probably be a mere average film at best. Their combined brilliance pushes Cinderella Man into the above average category, with Crowe in particular inhabiting the real-life character of Jim Braddock stunningly well. Think whatever you want about Russell Crowe the man, but Crowe the actor is quickly becoming the finest actor of his generation (or, at the very least, is in the top percentile). Braddock isn't an easy character to play and make interesting, as Howard seems intent on deifying him, making him so inherently good that he could easily be bland and boring in the hands of a lesser performer.
As for the film itself, it's well-worn territory in the standard Ron Howard form. Howard's M.O. is to grab, pull, and squish every ounce of sentimentality out of a story, and assault the viewer with it. It's not subtle, but, usually very effective. He did it in Backdraft, Apollo 13, and his award-winning A Beautiful Mind, and he pulls no punches in Cinderella Man (no pun intended. Or, perhaps it was intended, you decide). Braddock is a hero that all theatre-goers can get behind, beaten down by the Great Depression until he gets one last chance to make it in the boxing ring. He loves his family, his wife, his country, and his friends. He's an honest man who is barely able to provide for his family, which kills him. Were it possible to view the movie with a cool detachment, you can see the parts of the movie where Howard is saying to the audience "okay, cry... NOW!" It's highly manipulative, but, it's effective. There were even instances that almost had me going.
Howard similarly plays with the hopes and fears of the audience, injecting the movie with legitimate menace and fear in the final climactic match. He wants the audience to feel every blow in the ring, and to fear for the hero's life against the brutal champion Max Baer. And, for the most part, you do. Away from the ring, Howard wants the audience to feel the oppressive struggle many faced during the Great Depression, and pours on the sentiment to accomplish this, and, for the most part, it works.
There's very little new to what Cinderella Man accomplishes. The boxing sequences are proficient, but the boxing-as-metaphor-for-human-struggle has been done many times before. The underdog sports hero capturing the heart of the nation theme was done two years ago in Seabiscuit. It's too bad that the material feels so recycled, because the story of Jim Braddock (nicknamed the Cinderella Man by a sportswriter during his miraculous comeback) is a compelling one. But, since the movie is so familiar, and Howard is so over the top with his sentimentality, the movie is no cinematic classic, and not the Oscar contender it so longs to be.
However, it is an entertaining movie. My advice to those thinking of seeing it is to go in, allow yourself to be manipulated, ride the emotional roller coaster, and don't disrespect yourself in the morning. You'll have a good night out at the movies, and if you were truly inspired by the story it told, do some reading to find out all the details that were fudged in order to make you laugh, cry, and hold your breath.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Raging Bull (1980)