Ron Howard Gives His Take on the Boxer’s Life a Soft, Sentimental Touch
How would you like to be the fighter on the second card after a title fight? That’s how Cinderella Man must feel, coming into theaters after the Oscar-laden triumph of Million Dollar Baby. Those kinds of odds wouldn’t bother Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), though. As Cinderella Man opens, he’s a middleweight fighter who can provide for his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and children in modest bourgeois splendor. But the Crash of ’29 wipes him out, and his true capital—his youth, vigor, and unhammered skull—runs the way of every boxer’s. His former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) makes Braddock an offer—there’s a fight coming up, and some new hitter needs horsemeat to pound on. Knowing his family is hungry and his glory days have run their course, Braddock agrees to one last beating. But, against all predictions, Braddock is victorious, restarting his boxing career and prompting Damon Runyon to baptize him with the sobriquet that titles the film. Based on one of boxing’s greatest (and true) comeback stories, Man aims for Seabiscuit-y feel-good and mostly succeeds.
Crowe is unrecognizable here in comparison to many of his previous incarnations, especially that of the shattered, bloated John Nash of A Beautiful Mind, which like Cinderella Man is also directed by Ron Howard. As Braddock, Crowe is lean and handsome, with black hair and a Jimmy Stewart twinkle in his eye. He proves he’s got unused gears as an actor by refusing to retread his surly bruiser roles, instead investing Braddock with tenderness and unabashed love for his family. Regrettably, Zellweger and Giamatti just do their same-old, same-old—acceptable in Giamatti’s case, not so in Zellweger’s, who pulls off the head-scratching feat of not seeming married to Crowe while Crowe seems completely married to her.
Howard uses the full existing boxing-movie vocabulary to describe Braddock’s bouts, but he expands the point-of-view shots into new territory. Similarly to how he articulated John Nash’s delusions and revelations, Howard digitally sweetens the world coming in through Braddock’s blackened eyes, moving punch-drunk beyond the tilting kaleidoscope double-vision familiar to the Three Stooges into a more accurate world of coronas and halos and blurring near-blackouts. Photographers’ hissing flashbulbs tab the shocks to the fighter’s battered bodies, marking the instant of fracture and concussion with bursts of strobe. The film’s best scene shows Braddock analyzing a film of his next opponent, reigning champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), portrayed as a grinning, kinky-haired psychopath who’s proud to have killed two luckless souls in the ring. The sequence starts with a newsreel of Baer’s most recent match, but quickly steps inside Braddock’s eyes as his keen fighter’s mind deconstructs the dead man’s errors, moving the fatal moment through multiple views, in forward and reverse, ending with a glowering Baer leering up at him with a palpable, animal menace that suffuses Man’s final act.
As skillfully as Cinderella Man hits its marks, though, its unrestrained sentimentality snatches it just short of greatness. Howard is in love with the look and feel of the Great Depression and saturates every frame with near-revisionist nostalgia. Clothing and surroundings and even skin look faded and dusty, and the soundtrack music crackles with premature age. The nostalgia may make us feel warm and fuzzy, but in the end it undoes the dramatic tension Howard appears to be striving for. Impending danger needs to be impending, not historical, to earn our concern. And so many times there’s a moment of deep emotional clarity that Howard belabors, such as when Mae, distraught, retreats to the church one evening. She explains to the priest she’s here to pray for her husband, who’s battling the murderous Baer as they speak. The priest motions to all the neighborhood parishioners filling the pews who’ve all come to do the same thing. Just as the moment swells, the priest cuts the tension by pointing out the obvious, that they believe Braddock represents their own struggle, or some such. If only Howard had had the discipline to cut the tag line from that scene, and from a half-dozen more that nail the audience flat with their emotional power before overworking the point. Even a beginning fighter knows that it just makes you look like a palooka if you punch ’em when they’re down.