CINDERELLA MAN (director: Ron Howard; screenwriters: Cliff Hollingsworth/Akiva Goldsman/based on a story by Mr. Hollingsworth; cinematographer: Salvatore Totino; editors: Mike Hill/Dan Hanley; music: Thomas Newman; cast: Russell Crowe (Jim Braddock), Renée Zellweger (Mae Braddock), Paul Giamatti (Joe Gould), Craig Bierko (Max Baer), Paddy Considine (Mike Wilson), Bruce McGill (Jimmy Johnston), Ron Canada (Joe Jeanette), Nicholas Campbell (sports columnist, Mort Lewis), Connor Price (Jay Braddock, oldest son); Runtime: 144; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Brian Grazer/Ron Howard /Penny Marshall; Miramax; 2005)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A commercially made mainstream biopic about rags-to-riches boxer Irish James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), born of immigrant parents and raised in New York City’s tough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. He was nicknamed during his climb to the top of the ring as the “Cinderella Man” by Broadway columnist Damon Runyan. Braddock’s inspirational story as a Depression-era folk hero to the equally struggling masses plays as a splashy manipulative tearjerker that fits in with director Ron Howard (“Splash”/”Apollo 13″/”How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) and his signature way of filling the screen with schmaltz and crowd pleasing formulaic set pieces while promising heft but somehow never getting around to completing that promise. Instead the film relishes in its self-importance and gets into familiar movie-making clinches as it glides through a series of dark cliché moments in the nice-guy family man boxer’s hard-pressed fight for survival (to feed his long-suffering but trembling voiced loyal wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and three small children) and finally getting to the film’s centerpiece Rocky-like fight in the third act. It has Braddock fighting as a 10-to-1 underdog in 1935 for the world heavyweight championship against the seemingly invincible Max Baer (Craig Bierko–who instills fire into his sneering characterization as a trash talking womanizer, as he makes the most of his role as the villain you love to hate). That Braddock, the fans fave and the inspirational hero for the downtrodden, fights the best fight of his life before a crowd of over 35,000 in Long Island City plus a vast radio audience across the country and unexpectedly wins the world heavyweight title, which comes just one year after he was on the soup-lines, receiving Public Assistance, and working irregularly as a longshoreman on the docks, is the real-life fairy-tale story that Howard cashes in on in his glitzy and superficial telling of the likable but bland pugilist’s miraculous comeback story. It’s glorious hokum that looks picture perfect and has brutally effective boxing sequences, but it’s mostly a drag as it pulls at the heartstrings over how miserable and embarrassing it is to be working-class poor and have the electricity cut-off because you fell behind in the payments.
The rousing but hackneyed and all too familiar screenplay is by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, as once again Howard teams with Akiva, the writer from his Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind.”
Cinderella Man picks up in 1928 and Braddock is mauling his way to victory against another light-heavyweight contender at Madison Square Garden and his soulful manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, tries his hand at comedy by yapping away at the fighter’s desperate situation) pays Braddock his hard-earned purse money in a chauffeur-driven car, which he dutifully brings home to his wife in their cheery suburban North Bergen, New Jersey private house. A year later Braddock fights champ Tommy Loughran for the title, but was defeated in a heartbreaking 15-round decision. Following the Loughran fight and the stock market crash of 1929, where he lost all his savings, Jim Braddock was down on his luck. His fighting career took a downturn because he was often injured. Desperate for cash, he fights with a broken hand in a Mount Vernon arena preliminary fight, but loses his boxing license at the insistence of greedy and cold-hearted boxing promoter Johnston (Bruce McGill) because he wasn’t putting up a competitive fight. We next see the Braddock family living in a dinghy basement apartment in New Jersey, and Braddock lecturing his oldest son about not stealing a sausage from the butcher. Though going through rough times, Braddock preaches the importance of American values and still buys into the American dream. A break comes when Gould gets him a fight as a last minute replacement to go against upcoming heavyweight challenger Corn Griffin. Despite not training, Braddock upsets Griffin and goes on to knockout John Henry Lewis and decision Art Lasky. With these amazing wins, Braddock has set himself up for a shot at the heavyweight title held by Max Baer (who has killed two opponents in the ring and threatens to also kill this nobody rival).
The film had little emotional wallop that didn’t seem artificially manufactured; it always felt just like a standard Hollywood movie that was excellently crafted but bankrupt in characterization and only capable of offering weak jabs with its trite narrative instead of one of Braddock’s signature right-handed knockout wallops. It makes its way in nostalgia across the Great Depression to tell a sappy heartwarming American human interest story of a decent guy who made it briefly to the top and managed to hold onto his dignity even when down, but the filmmaker took no risks in telling such a conventional story and romanticized the poverty with the syrupy grating music by Thomas Newman.
REVIEWED ON 6/6/2005 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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