Perhaps the most astonishing thing about “Cinderella Man,” Ron Howard’s crisp and gorgeously performed boxing biopic, is that its source material — the life of Jim Braddock, an underdog prizefighter and family man who became a folk hero during the Great Depression — has never been made into a movie before. While his triumphant story is remarkable enough in its own right, the truly uncommon thing about Braddock was his mundane simplicity as a character; rarely has there been such a revered historical figure that was really just an average, all-around decent guy trying to get a break.
But maybe it isn’t so surprising after all: Braddock’s story, fact-based though it may be, seems specifically tailored for post-Sept. 11th Hollywood, in which tales of red-blooded, everyman American heroism are easy sells. The film offers an expedited version of Braddock’s (Russell Crowe, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) midlife years, opening as a chronic hand injury casts him out of boxing in the years directly before the Depression. As hard times hit, he struggles to keep his wife (Renée Zellweger, “Cold Mountain”) and children afloat until his former manager (Paul Giamatti, “Sideways”) finally finds a way to bring him back into the ring.
Indeed, the story sounds like the stuff of Oscar dreams for distributor Universal (who also scored with Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind”), but the only real buzz the movie will likely retain at year’s end is that for its lead performance. As the title character, Crowe, the frankly stated Aussie import with a hugely successful (but curiously under-populated) résumé, has delivered yet another assured and affecting performance that resonates with uncontrived sentimentality. To be sure, the spectacular supporting players — most notably Zellweger and Giamatti but also Craig Bierko (“The Thirteenth Floor”) as Braddock’s blisteringly malevolent opponent — are nothing short of fantastic. But “Cinderella Man” is, by all accounts, entirely Crowe’s movie.
For his part, Howard provides the film with his typically solid direction, but now, more than ever, his limitations as a filmmaker are clear. With his patient and intelligent craft, the stalwart director almost systematically refuses to take risks; there’s scarcely a moment in any of his films that’s a true surprise because he so painstakingly follows classical narrative templates.
Howard’s secret to success is simple: his stories. If he has a good yarn on his hands (“Apollo 13”), his films can truly soar, but without a workable backbone, they awkwardly stumble their way to conclusion (“EDtv”). “Cinderella Man” is among his most compelling movies precisely because it has such a rousing story behind it — but its success almost seems undeserved, because it is, above all, an archetypal formula picture.
Then there’s the climax, which shamelessly juxtaposes dewy-eyed shots of a Catholic Church praying for Braddock with a rather unsubtle focus on the Star of David sported on his opponent’s pre-fight robes. The movie is based on fact, so Howard is off the hook and likely meant no offense. But as much as the film is grand entertainment, it does little to debunk the disquieting sentiment that plagues almost all American period pieces: That the stories are really only for a certain kind of American.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars