Ron Howard has a reputation for excessive sentimentality in his films. I’ll reserve judgment on whether this is deserved for another time, but if it is true, Howard was the perfect director for Cinderella Man. This mostly accurate story of real life boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) needs a filmmaker willing to yank on the heartstrings like a team of Clydesdales. This film is so consciously old fashioned that it really ought to have been filmed in black and white in the old 4:3 Academy aspect ratio.
Braddock was an up and coming light-heavyweight in the late nineteen twenties, just a few fights away from becoming the champion, before being brought low by the one-two combination of a hand injury and the Great Depression. After a fight ends in an embarrassing draw, he loses his license to fight. Finding what work he can on the docks but hampered by his injured hand, he and his family slip deeper into poverty until his electricity is shut off in the dead of winter. Rather than let his wife (Renée Zellweger) send their kids to stay with her family, he swallows his pride and goes on public assistance. When that’s not enough, he literally goes hat in hand to his former boxing colleagues, including his manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti).
Braddock’s big break comes a year later when Joe comes to with a chance to fight again. The number two challenger for the title has lost his opponent the day before a fight. Braddock is brought in as tune for the challenger’s likely showdown with Max Baer (Craig Bierko). A heavy underdog, Braddock shocks everyone by knocking out the challenger. Apparently, a year of compensating for his injured right hand has given him a left hand to reckon with.
He is then brought in to warm up other fighters for their showdowns with Baer, a fearsome heavyweight famous for having killed two opponents. To the surprise of everyone but us in the audience, Braddock overcomes the odds and bests two younger, larger, stronger boxers, making him next in line to fight Baer for the championship, whose deadly reputation causes his wife, Mae, a lot of distress, to the point that she begs her husband not to fight, even if means breaking his hand again.
From a pure story standpoint, Cinderella Man doesn’t even pretend to try to surprise you. The story builds up to a fairly predictable climax and delivers exactly what it promises. Where this movie really scores is in the stories of Braddock and his relationships to his family and his manager, Joe Gould. Russell Crowe delivers a full-bodied portrayal of a decent family man just trying to keep a roof over his family’s heads. Jim Braddock may seem too good be true at times, but neither Crowe nor Ron Howard oversell his basic goodness as a person. Crowe’s New Jersey accent is also completely seamless. The same can not be said for Renée Zellweger, who alternately sounds like she’s from either New Jersey or Queens.
As Braddock’s frenetic manager, Paul Giamatti dominates every scene that he is in. Seeming like he could sell water to a drowning man, it’s clear why Mae Braddock doesn’t completely trust him, but you eventually realize that he genuinely cares about his fighter, to the point of selling his furniture to finance Jim’s training.
Where the film goes somewhat wrong is in its portrayal of Braddock’s final opponent, Max Baer. While’s it true that Baer did in fact kill one of his opponents, he didn’t relish in it or gloat like he does in this movie. The real Max Baer was haunted by the tragedy and, after leaving boxing for a year, donated his winnings after than to the other fighter’s family. It’s widely believed that Baer was never the same fighter after that. His son, Max Baer, Jr. of Beverly Hillbillies fame, was upset over his father’s depiction in this movie and with good reason.
Another stumble for a film that’s probably too long is the inclusion of a subplot involving a fictitious friend of Braddock’s, who’s involved in attempting to unionize the people living in the Hooverville in Central Park. This diversion has nothing to do with Jim Braddock’s story and only serves to pad the running time unnecessarily.
Cinderella Man may be too long, somewhat predictable and have the other aforementioned flaws, but its central story of a basically decent guy overcoming tough odds for the sake of his family is well played and well told.