Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man is about as good a movie as you will ever see in the feel-good, underdog-triumphant genre. It’s also a very good fight picture. And it’s more than that as well.
Along with a richly layered performance by Russell Crowe – all the more impressive because he portrays a character who, as written, is too good to be true – there’s an exquisite turn by Paul Giamatti as the sweet-talking manager. Giamatti is one of those actors who can speak volumes with the twitch of an eyebrow, and he increases his impressive range with each role. Renee Zellweger is also good as Mae, the long-suffering, tough-as-nails, devoted wife of heavyweight champ James J. Braddock, whose contender-to-rags-to-riches story is told here with an old-fashioned air of melodrama.
The movie’s gritty depiction of city life during the Great Depression is what makes it more than just a good genre picture. Injury and bad luck reduced Jim Braddock, once a serious contender, to scrounging for pick-up work on the docks. Jim and Mae’s struggle to put food on the table and keep the lights on occupies a big chunk of this long movie, but it never drags; the screenplay, by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, along with Howard’s direction ensure a good pace. The scenes are full of little moments that draw the audience deeply in, like when Braddock appeals to Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill), the era’s Don King, to reinstate his credentials so he can fight again even though he’s hit bottom. A couple of words and looks convey all we need to know about the two men’s relationship, and how the business and personal sides of the boxing game can never be entirely separated.
Much later, in a pre-fight restaurant scene where Max Baer (the excellent Craig Bierko) taunts Braddock and Braddock refrains from taking the bait, the bully is challenged from an unexpected corner, and Braddock’s final line seals a moral victory more difficult and important than any triumph in the ring. Crowe is absolutely amazing in this scene. You have to go back perhaps to Jimmy Stewart to find a similar ability to portray the same person, simultaneously, as both fully human and ideally heroic.
The fight scenes themselves are just long enough for maximum suspense – a tough thing to pull off in a true story where the progress and outcome of every match is known – and shot with modern but subtle camera techniques that succeed in putting the viewer in the middle of the action and even behind the fighter’s eyes. The supporting cast is excellent, especially the three youngsters who play the Braddock kids. Even the score (by Thomas Newman ) is much less intrusive than in most big-budget melodramas.
I recommend this movie very highly to all audiences, except for very young children who may be disturbed by the graphic nature of the boxing scenes.