This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Essentially, Ron Howard’s latest directorial outing is a Rocky IV remake minus Ivan Drago. While this means that there’s little opportunity for huge Lundgren-based Russian guys to ominously mumble “I will break you” to a similarly mumbly Sly Stallone, it does afford Russel Crowe a chance to affect a New Jersey accent and beat up on hotel clerks. Happy Days.
Set largely during the Great Depression, the era when America broke, it concerns Jim Braddock (Crowe), perennial heavyweight also-ran on the tail edge of his career. After a number of increasingly poor fights his boxing licence is revoked. With money invested during better days vanished into the stock market black hole, he struggles to feed his kids and wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), unloading ships at the docks while nursing a broken hand. Things look grim, but a brief ray of light comes when his trainer/manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) shows up offering a one night only fight against the next Heavyweight Champion contender. Despite being hired as little more than a punchbag, Braddock wins. There’s life in the old dog yet.
The whole ‘underdog, second chance’ thing plays out well in the press so the boxing bigwigs are convinced by Gould to allow Braddock to have a few more fights to see if he’s up to a title shot against current champeen Max Baer (Craig Bierko). The only down side to winning a title shot against Baer is that you end up having to fight Max Baer, a man who hits so hard he’s already killed two people inside the squared circle. He is also, for the purposes of this film, a bloodthirsty, obnoxious asshat of a man, which allows us to root for Braddock’s good humoured, down to earth charismatic nice guy routine all the more.
Having all of this going on against the background of what is conceivably America’s darkest hour thus far in its short history allows for a great deal of angst-laiden wailing and gnashing of teeth by all parties involved, sadly especially on Zellweger’s part. After a run of good showings in decent films she back on the ‘>ironic misogynism<needs slapping>/ironic misogynism<‘ path, her occasional hysterical outburst having much the same effect as nails dragged over a blackboard or the chubby one out of Shakespeare’s Sister singing.
While we’re on the negative points, it’s worth mentioning how upset the estate of Max Baer are about this film. By ‘estate’ I assume they mean ‘surviving descendants’ rather than ‘sentient Volvo’, but I could be wrong. While I’ve no paperwork to back this up, it’s claimed that contrary to the pantomime villain that Bierko is forced to portray Baer was for the most part a nice guy, albeit something of a ‘ladies man’ or ‘slut’. Apparently racked with guilt over the deaths he was responsible for, you’d never guess it from Howard’s version which does nigh on everything to show Baer as a complete tool, stopping only just shy of having him run around melting puppies with some as yet undefined puppy melting device. Howard has his own story to orchestrate and heartstrings to tug, so let’s not get anything as trivial as facts get in the way shall we?
The good news is that in terms of negative points, that’s pretty much it. Sure, its orchestral crescendos are too overpowering in times of high emotion seemingly purely to elicit audience tears, but that’s nothing uncommon to every other drama of this ilk there’s ever been. Despite Crowe’s off camera antics placing him closer to Baer than Braddock in terms of character, it’s difficult to find fault with him when he’s plying his trade. Braddock’s desperation and misery at what he saw as his failure to provide for his family is palpable, and makes his fight for the championship the fight for his family’s life. Crowe is never less than utterly convincing during all this, which makes it easier to root for the guy than any number of artificially evil nemeses could.
Paul Giamatti scores yet again with another superb showing, coming off the back of American Splendor and the flawless Sideways (let’s ignore Paycheck, as it’s eminently ignorable). Playing perhaps the only instance of a cinematic sports manager that isn’t a slimy, duplicitous asshat, legend speaks of him getting so into character that his tirades turned into less-than-PG-certificate-friendly bouts of swearing. Hopefully there’s a good half hour of unedited potty mouth on the DVD release, but until then we can comfort ourselves with the fine performance of a man just as ravaged by the economic downturn but forced to keep up appearances. There’s definite warmth in the Braddock/Gould relationship that the leads capture well.
Howard knows how to film a punch, clearly boning up from the usual highly regarded sources (Raging Bull, Rocky, more recently Million Dollar Baby) to show that the punches have an impact that can be felt all the way to the back row.
There’s enough wrong with Cinderella Man to stop it taking full honours round these parts, but it’s still a film that tells a good tale, is an uplifting experience and can evoke some degree of sentiment without requiring a sick bucket to be on standby. Don’t let Crowe’s continuing campaign of off-camera private live recklessness and asshattery put you off seeing one of the better films to have leaked out over this astonishingly staid summer season.