Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man is a welcome bit of Hollywood counter-programming, a period boxing epic that comes in the brief respite afforded us between The Revenge of the Sith and Batman Begins. The film is a pugilistic Seabiscuit, a film that was released successfully in the middle of 2003’s blockbuster season. And like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man is an improbable but true story, the tale of a Depression-era down and outer named Jimmy Braddock, and his amazing resurgence to take the heavyweight title from Max Baer, the ring’s answer to War Admiral. If one can swallow a super-sized helping of sentimental corn, Cinderella Man is an effective work and, despite some omissions and invented characters and scenes, reasonably truthful as history and rousing as entertainment.
With this film, Russell Crowe seems to be making a bid to be America’s next Everyman, a title that has been held variously by Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Kevin Costner and Tom Hanks. His Jimmy Braddock is a simple and decent man who only wants to feed his family and achieve his dreams with a combination of grit, patience and faith. It’s a great, tried and true American narrative and Ron Howard, director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, knows exactly how to deliver it, even if he does some airbrushing of the sort that accompanied the latter film. As the hero, the bulked-up Crowe delivers an effectively restrained performance as a beleaguered, uncomplicated man struggling to feed his family.
We meet Crowe’s Braddock in the first flowering of his fight career in 1926. The country is prosperous, and Braddock’s fight future looks assured, as does his romance with Mae (Renée Zellweger, playing, in effect, the sort of domestic saint that filled so many American movies through the 1950s). When we encounter Braddock a few years later, however, the Depression has hit, his career has tanked due to a bad right hand and he’s now struggling to keep the bill collectors and the landlord away from his now-wife Mae and their three children.
Jimmy’s days are spent in futile search for work on the Jersey docks, and he’s finally forced to go on the relief rolls. Into this dismal tableau comes his old fight manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). Gould has a most unexpected offer: There’s a fight card at Madison Square Garden coming up in two days and the promoters need to find cannon fodder for an upstart challenger from Georgia named Corn Griffin. There’s $250 in it for Braddock, win or lose. Despite the lack of prep time, Braddock can’t say no.
Of course, the unexpected occurs and Braddock surprises Griffin with a newly discovered left hook in the third. Braddock is back in the game, and Ron Howard’s Cinderella story takes flight.
A key ingredient of the film’s charm is Paul Giamatti, here returning to a sidekick role after his fine turn in Sideways. Giamatti gets a lot of laughs as a motor-mouthed Jew who, when excited, exclaims, “Jesus, Joseph and Mary!” But aside from the character shtick, Giamatti brings a rich humanity to a man that, as we discover, is fighting his own battle against penury.
Ron Howard is less generous to Max Baer, the film’s villain, whom we first glimpse glowering and mugging between thunderous overhand rights that would knock down his opponent 11 times. Baer is a suitably scary opponent who has killed one man in the ring and contributed to the death of another, and in Craig Bierko’s broad enactment, he is an ostentatious clown and playboy richly deserving of dethronement. But the real Baer also fought with a Star of David on his trunks, an insignia that was far more visibly displayed in real life than in the film. Baer, whose Jewishness was actually rather tenuous, would later father Maxie “Jethro Bodine” Baer Jr. of The Beverly Hillbillies. Max Baer was a complex character who despised boxing and was terrified of his own power. Frankly, he was more interesting than the dogged and dutiful Braddock. But in Cinderella Man, Baer is reduced to the role of the arrogant heavy who is shown in such hackneyed scenes as the one in which he’s interrupted while engaged with a couple of ladies to bark at his manager, “Braddock? Send me someone who can fight back!”
Howard puts greater effort into other details of the era’s boxing scene, with a large role for character actor Bruce McGill as the fight’s promoter and a bit part for famed trainer Angelo Dundee, who was the film’s technical consultant.
Howard also lavishes attention on the Great Depression, but there’s a rote feeling to the montage of headlines and relief lines. The scenes on the Jersey docks, in which hordes of hungry men gather in hopes of being selected by the all-powerful foreman, are unavoidably reminiscent of On the Waterfront, a much better movie about a washed-up boxer. Howard isn’t pretending to make On the Waterfront, to be fair, but one can’t help but notice how far we’ve come since the era in which the workforce was widely unionized. The 1954 classic, directed by the liberal ex-Communist Elia Kazan, was concerned with the struggle of an individual to preserve his honor within a corrupt and cowed union (in addition to offering a defense of his cooperative testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee). On the docks depicted in Cinderella Man, it’s all about getting inside where each man can show his mettle. And show it Braddock does, despite having the use of only one hand.
Braddock makes a friend on the docks, an out of work stockbroker named Mike (the excellent British thesp Paddy Considine, last seen in In America). Mike is a squirrelly sort, and a wife-menacing drunk to boot. But when he’s sober, he talks the crazy stuff of the era like unions, radicalism, anarchism, whateverism. But Braddock just tells him to knock it off: “Roosevelt’s going to work it out.” This is the ideology of our own day, when we’ve learned to trust in the benevolence of the Big Man–we’ve just got to prove we’re good enough for him. And after Braddock begins to win fights again, the imperious shipyard foreman suddenly becomes a chum, though we don’t see if the foreman improves his treatment of the other desperate job-seekers.
Ron Howard’s apolitical use of the Depression is simply Hollywood, however much we may wish for a fresher treatment of the period. Hunger and employment, combined with scratchy radios, period big-band music, Model Ts and the rapidly dying form of information-sharing known as the newspaper all add up to familiar stage dressing for a tried and true fairytale narrative. Still, Ron Howard’s rendering of his subject, as orthodox and predictable as it may be, is nonetheless a well-made and moving entertainment that’s anchored by fine performances by Crowe and Giamatti.