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Cinderella Man   B

Universal Pictures / Miramax Films

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman
Cast: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Bruce McGill, Paddy Considine, David Huband, Connor Price.

Review by Rob Vaux

Cinderella Man is indicative of the strangely infuriating work of Ron Howard. It's not that he's a bad director; far from it. His crap to quality ratio is impressively low, and the films with his name on them are nothing if not reliable. He's well-liked by the public and much-respected within the industry, as evinced by his multiple Oscars for 2001's A Beautiful Mind. Simply put, he makes good movies. And yet the widespread praise he enjoys makes it easy to forget that he just makes good movies. There is no brilliance in his work, no artistry or canonical statements to grace his resume. He's praised to the stars for delivering what is essentially product. Quality product, perhaps, but a far cry from the masterpieces suggested by his reputation.

More than anything else, Cinderella Man is evidence of this trend: a well-made crowd-pleaser draped in the pretensions of art. It's the kind of subject that wins a lot of awards, then fades and is forgotten in the space of a few years. Its focus is boxer James Braddock, whose promising career faltered during the early years of the Great Depression, leaving him standing in the breadlines before an astonishing comeback rocketed him to national prominence. Howard envisions his story as a comfortable mixture of family values and triumphant underdog clichés. Braddock is played by Russell Crowe, an actor tailor-made for tormented pugilism and whose innate physicality makes him a natural in the ring. We first see Braddock during the Roaring Twenties, taking an opponent apart and anticipating a future that holds nothing but roses. But that's before the big crash, which costs him everything and sends his family into a dingy tenement where they struggle to keep the lights on. Bouts become scarce -- an injured right hand doesn't help -- and jobs down on the New Jersey docks are day-to-day at best.

Howard balances the drama almost perfectly between Braddock's fading life in the ring and his efforts to keep his family fed. Each half is marked by Crowe's interplay with another performer. Paul Giamatti, as his fast-talking manager, establishes an easy rapport with the star that suggests both familial ease and fierce loyalty. His character helps facilitate a final "farewell" fight that Braddock unexpectedly wins, leading to another fight... and another... and another. The scenes of the two of them together are among the film's best, whether it be their relaxed banter before each match or Giamatti's rapid-fire instructions in the ring.

Less successful is Crowe's other pairing, with Renée Zellweger as his wife Mae. Howard uses their dynamic to focus on the horrors of the Depression, as they fight to keep their children from starving while Mae harbors growing misgivings about letting her husband continue to box. Zellweger is in good form and works well enough with Crowe, but her role is scarcely more than window dressing: the good little wife whose biggest challenge is to stand by her man. Indeed, while Braddock's relationship with his family is sure to resonate with all the soccer moms and NASCAR dads out there, it feels predictable from beginning to end, complete with showy tears and Oscar-bait speeches about never giving up.

Thankfully, there are compensations. Howard has a good sense of historical detail, and the art direction and cinematography establish a lovely earth-toned look reminiscent of Road to Perdition and similar period films. Though the buildup to Braddock's shot at redemption (a title bout with showboating champion Max Baer) is standard-issue, it remains punchy and engaging, thanks to editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill who bring breathless flair to the screen each time a new match begins. Cinderella Man is a terrifically entertaining package. But at the same time, it falls well short of the early praise that has been heaped upon it. Howard's direction is too calculated and the emotional beats too easily conjured to justify such accolades. What we see is comforting and familiar -- and certainly, 2005 has been weak enough to welcome such qualities -- but the best picture of the year? Come on, folks, get a grip. It's a pretty good film like a lot of other pretty good films: solid, dependable, and willing to hold the line until a real masterpiece gets here.

Review published 06.02.2005.

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