In the late 1920s James Braddock (Russell Gladiator Crowe) was a promising heavyweight boxer, but just as the nation entered the darkest years of the Great Depression he was forced by a damaged right hand into retirement and a string of losses in the ring. To support his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), and their children, Braddock took a string of dead-end jobs, though he never totally abandoned his dream of boxing again.
Thanks to a last minute cancellation and some work by his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), Braddock found himself back in the ring against the second-ranked world contender. To everyone’s surprise Braddock won the fight. Despite being pounds lighter than his opponents and the hand injury Braddock continued to fight and win.
He carried on his shoulders the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised masses of Depression America, which dubbed him the Cinderella Man. He then faced his toughest challenge: a fight against Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the heavyweight champion of the world, renowned for having killed two men in the ring.
Cinderella Man is a handsomely produced film that moves quickly for its two and a half hour running time, but in the end it does not leave you with all that much. Cliff Hollingsworth’s and Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay covers all the important points in Braddock’s private and professional life and keeps our interest, but it lacks any sort of depth or involvement. The story’s setup is rushed, supporting characters are thin and subplots, such as the one involving a friend of Jim’s played by Paddy Constantine, are underdeveloped.
In the first half, director Ron Howard manages to keep his trademark sentimentality overload mercifully in check. This allows for some genuinely moving and heartbreaking scenes, including the film’s most powerful scene involving Braddock being reduced to begging to support his family.
But as the film progresses and Braddock begins his comeback, Howard’s directing loses its focus and effectiveness, replaced instead by sports cliches and the dreaded Howard schmaltziness. The big fight between Braddock and Baer approaches but there is little in the way of dramatic build-up or suspense. It almost happens matter-of-factly. Granted the outcome of the fight is known, which takes some of the tension out of the film’s conclusion, but that was a problem faced by Howard’ with Apollo 13. But whereas that film had me on the edge of my seat applauding loudly Cinderella Man did not.
One area in which the film excels is the acting. Crowe is excellent as Braddock, managing to rise above the limitations of the screenplay to give us a family man and hero worth championing and caring about. Zellweger makes the most out of the cliched Suffering Housewife role, while Paul Giamatti steals scenes left and right (when does he not?) as Gould. Bierko manages to pull off a few amusing scenes despite being stuck with a one-note characterization of Baer, while Paddy Constantine makes the most of what is essentially a non-role.
With a director like Ron Howard calling the shots, a cast featuring some of the best people working in Hollywood today and a subject that could have been Seabiscuit meets Raging Bull, I had high hopes for Cinderella Man. While those hopes are not completely dashed, they were certainly neutered as the film progressed. I wanted a knockout blow, but got a draw instead.