Cinderella Man Review
In the nineteen twenties, James J Braddock (Russell Crowe) is a heavyweight boxer with a good living, a beautiful wife (Renée Zellweger), three kids and a promising future. By 1933, a series of injuries and the impact of America's Great Depression have taken away everything but his family. Jim's boxing license has been revoked and he works as a part-time labourer at the docks, at least on the days they're hiring. He and his family live in a slum apartment amidst an ever-growing pile of bills, struggling to survive and stay together. One day, out of the blue, Jim's former manager (Paul Giamatti) comes to him with an offer of a fight. A challenger has dropped out of a scheduled bout and no licensed fighter will take his place without time to train. Jim accepts the offer, grateful for the money and completely unaware of how dramatically his life is about to change.
It's been a long time since we've had a Rocky movie. Sylvester Stallone keeps touting Rocky VI but it's been fifteen years since the last episode was released, twenty since the last decent one. Cinderella Man is a Rocky movie - a classed-up Rocky movie in period dress and with a dream cast but a Rocky movie all the same. I know Braddock's story is true. The original Rocky was also inspired by a true story (Chuck Wepner's title shot against Muhammad Ali) and no doubt the history of boxing contains many other tales of underdogs having their day. Whatever its origins, the film on the screen is pure Hollywood and it owes much to Stallone's creation.
Don't think I'm putting Rocky down. I love the series, one through four, and I enjoyed Cinderella Man on the same level, which I found pleasing and disappointing at the same time. Pleasing because a big part of me was happy to relive my childhood by rooting for Balboa, I mean Braddock to win the climactic fight. Disappointing because this movie is supposed to be something more. It certainly shows signs of wanting to be something more but it doesn't follow through. The reviews have been good - the film's even being mooted as a Oscar contender - but a movie this safe and predictable doesn't deserve that kind of praise, no matter how well acted and handsomely mounted it is. It says something about the standard of movies this year that Cinderella Man is seriously being tipped for awards.
Perhaps it's the period angle. Period movies do well at Oscar time. Cinderella Man's recreation of the 1930s seems awfully artificial to me though - too Hollywood, too metaphorically tinted in sepia. The nostalgia evoked by director Ron Howard is at odds with the story's purpose: to show what horrible times these were. Howard is capable of doing "gritty" when he wants to - see The Missing - but instead he's doing the same thirties mythologising that Seabiscuit did.
Indeed the racehorse movie, which was a surprise blockbuster and Oscar nominee in 2003, appears to have been a major influence on Cinderella Man. Both films stress the inspiration that their sporting heroes provided for the downtrodden masses. I'm not sure Seabiscuit's influence is a positive one. That tale may have also taken place during the Depression but it was set outside it, in the stables, paddocks and racetracks of California. Cinderella Man is much more about the day to day experiences of the Depression's victims. To do justice to that, you need to get your hands a lot dirtier than Ron Howard does.
There are moments which do effectively convey the Braddocks' struggle to survive. Most memorable is Jim's trip to the boxing commission to beg for a handout so he can keep his family together. In scenes like this, the script suggests a darker, less sanitised film than the one on the screen.
Ironically, the film's serious intentions work against it as a simple boxing movie. The second half deals largely with Braddock's comeback and the road to his heavyweight title challenge. Although this material is as steeped in formula as any Rocky sequel, its treatment is as straight-faced as the first half's grimmer stuff. It's so straight-faced that it saps some of the fun away. A little more of Sylvester Stallone's shamelessness might have made it more entertaining. Only in the very last round does Ron Howard finally go for the emotions and get us all fired up.
If this seems like a negative review, let me say I did enjoy the film and I'm recommending it with the reservations outlined above. I just wish its creators had chosen to make either a serious film about poverty or a boxing picture, rather than an unsatisfying hybrid of both.
That it still works as well as it does is mainly down to the cast. Russell Crowe deserves the lion's share of the credit. It's a testament to his star power that he can make such a one-dimensionally decent character so compelling. Paul Giamatti is also outstanding. He does wonders with the ancient cliché of the cynical old trainer. As Braddock's ultimate opponent, the fearsome Max Baer, Craig Bierko makes a strong villain (as he did in The Long Kiss Goodnight). It's been argued by some that the negative portrayal of Baer is unfair and inaccurate but that reflects on the screenwriters, not Bierko.
Renée Zellweger has the "Adrian" role, the concerned, loving wife. It's a little surprising that an actress of Zellweger's stature - she's one of the few women who can open a film - would take such a thankless part but it must be said that she plays it as well as could have been done. Paddy Considine however is unable to do anything with a role that's either poorly written or, more likely, has been heavily trimmed. Maybe that's because Considine's character, a communist labour organiser, represents a political angle that made either Howard or his producers uncomfortable. As it is, Considine's few remaining scenes, including the aftermath of a riot, stand out as conspicuous rough edges in what is otherwise slick, middle-of-the-road moviemaking.