Classic story of Depression-era boxer’s return to glory almost over-cooked
As the tale of an underdog unexpectedly rising to a world championship, the story of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock is more or less irresistible. Cinderella Man, Ron Howard’s heart-tugging movie about Braddock’s heroics, milks that story shamelessly and, but for the rock-solid presence of Russell Crowe in the title role, might have diluted the thing beyond recognition.
Braddock, a longshoreman from New Jersey with a wife and three kids, had some success as a promising light-heavyweight boxer in the late 1920s. By the early 1930s and the Great Depression, his career was fizzling out, and he was hard-pressed to pay the bills in his family’s greatly reduced circumstances. But in the summer of 1934, he got an unexpected chance for a comeback, and in less than a year he battled his way, against the proverbially overwhelming odds, to the heavyweight championship of the world.
As such, the real-life story sounds readymade for a Hollywood movie, but no one has gotten around to it until now, and even then, Howard and company have not been content to simply tell it like it was. The basic details of the Braddock saga remain more or less intact here, but Howard and his screenwriters (Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) have seen fit to re-cook the story in several flavors of hopped-up melodrama.
The most conspicuous instances reside in the overplaying of the pre-fight anxieties of Braddock’s wife Mae (Renàe Zellweger) and the dredging up of several kinds of false suspense in the course of Braddock’s championship bout with the heavily favored Max Baer (a hammy Craig Bierko).
Braddock himself seems to have been a good-natured, hard-headed stoic with an astonishing capacity for standing up to fearsome punishments, physical and mental, and always finding a way to battle back. Crowe embodies those qualities admirably while steering clear of glamorization and even throwing in a hint or two of nastiness barely held in check by that quiet good-naturedness.
In the process, Crowe’s smoldering cool seems to modulate the wacky enthusiasm in Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of Joe Gould, Braddock’s long-time manager and loyal friend. Crowe and Giamatti both seem well-cast as real-life foils, but Giamatti’s performance remains partly infected by the film’s melodramatic errancies.
At its best, Cinderella Man is a very good boxing flick, bristling with excellent action sequences. It is also a modestly appealing period piece, particularly with respect to the world of big-time boxing in its most storied era. Howard’s expressed interest in the Great Depression, however, yields somewhat lightweight results onscreen, and never more so than when the period is serving as a pointedly grand backdrop for Braddock’s individual hard work and self-sacrifice.
Zellweger is a little less squinty than usual, but her emotional authority as an actress is focused less on Mae Braddock’s partnership in courage than on an adoration of Braddock/ Crowe. And that is just one more thing that makes Cinderella Man a true story that can’t quite bring itself to become a true picture.