Hollywood goes undefeated in its last two major boxing movies with Cinderella Man, a grand reunion for Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard. After last year's Oscar-winning take on boxing with the excellent Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man qualifies as 2005's first true Oscar contender and another good film on the sport (although my colleague, James DiGiovanna, disagrees on the merits of Million Dollar Baby).
Jim J. Braddock was an extraordinary boxer, coming out of nowhere during the Great Depression to give the United States something to cheer about. After a quick rise and hard fall in the sport, he came back with a legendary run at the heavyweight championship of the world when he fought Max Baer in 1935. This moment is meticulously and excitingly captured in Howard's film.
Crowe, who has had a semi-casual but quality career as of late, making one picture every two years, delivers what might be his best performance yet as Braddock. Physically impressive in the ring and very effective in the emotional scenes, Crowe makes Braddock a realistic symbol of survival and perseverance.
The fight scenes are well-staged and gripping, especially that final bout with total-nutcase Baer, a sadistic boxer who killed two people in the ring. While nothing beats the visceral power of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull for capturing the combined bloody violence and stylistic grace of boxing, Howard often comes close. The 15-round Baer fight represents some of the best filmmaking in Howard's prestigious career,
The film does have its shortcomings. Renée Zellweger is overwrought and unconvincing as Braddock's long-suffering wife, Mae. She's acting with her hair in this movie (she's dyed it brunette ... how different and daring!), and her handling of emotional scenes strikes some of the film's worst notes. A subplot involving one of Braddock's buddies trying to stage a revolt in a Central Park Hooverville (a Depression-era shantytown) is glossed over and feels trite.
If Howard misses the mark a bit at times, it's more than made up for with other stellar moments. When Braddock must beg for money in front of his former boxing compatriots after hitting the skids--a desperate act to keep his family together--it's a powerful scene. While Cinderella Man is certainly a boxing movie, it is also Howard's take on the Great Depression, and Crowe makes this a moment that heartbreakingly illustrates the hardship and humiliation Americans suffered during those times.
Braddock's all-time low (which coincided with America's ultimate economic lull) gives him nowhere to go but up, and he does just that when his tenacious yet sympathetic manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) shows up with a one-time bout idea. That single fight, Braddock's intended goodbye to boxing, winds up becoming the starting point for one of the more startling comebacks in sport's history.
Oscar has snubbed Giamatti for American Splendor and Sideways, and they'll get their chance again, because he's fantastic as Gould. Considering that much of this film covers the Great Depression and is (appropriately) depressing, Giamatti's killer comic timing is the perfect relief. That's not to say Gould isn't a complete, well-rounded character that garners sympathy, because he is that, as well. It's another phenomenal piece of work from one of the trade's best actors.
While Crowe has already taken home an Oscar for Gladiator (an award that could be best described as over-compensatory), he should find himself in the running once again for Cinderella Man. Yes, it's early, but the movie year has been bland thus far. Universal Pictures will probably re-release this come December in case Academy voters have forgotten its worth.
As for Howard, this marks his best work since Apollo 13. (He won the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, but deserved it more for his taut astronaut movie.) He's proving himself a master of creating suspenseful films where the ending is a foregone conclusion due to recorded history. Summer is the time for things to blow up real good on screen at the local Cineplex. Cinderella Man represents a serious, warm-hearted and rousing diversion.