“When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet,” claims the tag line for Ron Howard’s Depression-era drama about boxer James Braddock (Russell Crowe). Resisting the fact that I know there’s a rude gag in there somewhere, I’ll concede that the claim pretty much sums up the approach Howard takes with Cinderella Man.
In fact, the movie doesn’t amount to much more than Cinderella Biscuit, with a boxing Russell Crowe standing in for a racing horse. And like Seabiscuit, I’m betting this movie will be what they call a crowd-pleaser. Unlike Seabiscuit, however, Howard’s film comes closer to deserving such popularity. Ironically, that’s true precisely because of Ron Howard’s limitations as a filmmaker, which work to his advantage here.
Whether Howard is unafraid of cliches because he understands their potential power or because he doesn’t recognize they are cliches hardly matters. He uses them, embraces them and, on occasion, gets some good out of them. The torturous avoidance of cliches in Gary Ross’s Seabiscuit is nowhere in evidence here, nor are there injections of laughably ham-handed symbolism.
This is Capra-corn, and that’s how Howard tackles it. The approach is hardly surprising, given the critical and commercial drubbing his last film, The Missing, received when he tried to depart from that proven formula. In this case, though, the cliched approach is the only way this kind of material can work.
From its Damon Runyon-inspired title (Runyon was the writer who stuck the name “Cinderella Man” on Braddock) and its loathsome big businessmen to its communist rumblings (appropriately punished, of course) and New Deal idealism, this is a populist fantasy of the Frank Capra variety, right down the line. (In fact, Capra — or screenwriter Robert Riskin — applied the term “Cinderella Man” to the title character of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.)
If it all feels just a little bit like a movie set in the Depression that’s cobbled together from Depression-era movies, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, those movies are probably the most vibrant record of that time that we have — and not just the ones that dealt with the Depression head-on, but the ones that fed the dreams of the people who lived through it. Those movies may not have been true in the strictest sense, but they do convey both the sense of the time and the ways in which people coped. Cinderella Man, for all its undeniable schmaltziness, is no more dishonest than its source material. Indeed, the film’s as honest a depiction as it can be — and a sincere one, with nearly perfect period detail. (That anyone in 1933 would have a dream about having dinner with the then largely unknown Mickey Rooney was the only gaffe I spotted.)
The film does have its limitations. Bringing in the Mike Wilson character (Paddy Considine, In America) as a speechifier of the “workers-of-the-world-unite” variety doesn’t really work. This part is poorly developed, to the point that the movie doesn’t even make it clear that communism was a not unpopular idea among working class intellectuals at the time. This is something that 1930s movies like Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! and Red Salute didn’t need to spell out, but something a movie made 70 years later does need to do. As it stands, all this adds to the film is a bit of color that ultimately feels like padding on an already long screenplay.
In addition, much of Braddock’s domestic life with his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger in a role that doesn’t require an actress of her caliber), and their family is just too simplistic to be believable. The movie wants the fighter’s home life to explain too much, turning Braddock into a saintly character who has no ego for personal glory and is just trying to take care of his family. The only hint of complexity comes from Crowe’s performance — and that’s so much Crowe’s doing that it has nothing to do with the script.
The film also goes too far in its attempt to turn heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star) into a transparent villain, while at the same time sidestepping the fact that Baer’s playboy lifestyle and his tendency to eschew training played a large role in determining the results of his fight with Braddock.
Still, this is all part and parcel of Howard at his most crowd-pleasingly simplistic. You can’t really call it surprising and you can’t say it doesn’t work — as long as you don’t think about it too much. Despite (and in some cases because of) its dramatic simplifications, Cinderella Man works far more than it doesn’t.
That’s partly because boxing is far and away the sport that best lends itself to film. It’s inherently visual and visceral, and filmmakers from King Vidor (The Champ) to Rouben Mamoulian (Golden Boy) to John G. Avildsen (Rocky) to Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) have milked it for all it’s worth. Even Ken Russell crafted what was probably the best action scene of his career with a boxing match in Valentino.
Boxing has also worked its movie magic for Howard, whose finest and most powerful work ever can be found in Cinderella Man‘s fight scenes. They’re brutal and exciting, and they actually bring something new to the party: Cutaway shots to what’s driving Braddock and flash inserts of X-rays of the damage being inflicted on him. I once saw the toughest audience in the world — a college crowd — get to its feet and cheer at the climax of Wallace Beery’s big fight in The Champ, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the same thing happen with Cinderella Man.
Whatever its flaws elsewhere, Howard’s film is (yes, I am reduced to saying it) a knockout whenever it’s in the ring. Rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke