Cinderella Man wants to be Seabiscuit on two legs, but lacks the guts and smarts and heart. It tells the fact-based story of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), a Jersey City boxer who lost his pro standing and his savings during the Depression. He took dockside jobs to support his wife and three children, and in 1934 had an unexpected and amazing run for the heavyweight crown.
Ron Howard, who directed the movie, and Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth, who wrote it, mistake "sober-sided" for "tough-minded." The fights unroll in the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, but they may as well have been filmed in the Dust Bowl. The movie looks as if Jersey and New York had suffered sandstorms during shooting (Salvatore Totino did the tiresome sepia cinematography). The filmmakers subject us to one life lesson after another, as Jimmy teaches his oldest son not to steal (no matter how hungry you are) and strives in vain to be self-sufficient even as the electricity goes off and the milkman halts delivery.
Hard times really did put the squeeze on the Braddocks, but the director and writers put the squeeze on the audience. The trick of tragedy - even a tragedy with a happy final act, like this one - is to get us on-board for the roller-coaster rise before the fall. In Cinderella Man, after a tease of Jimmy in his flush days, it's all downhill until his persevering manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), gets him a top under-card fight on less than two days' notice. People starved for a movie that's explicitly "about something" may embrace it as they did Million Dollar Baby, another overlong boxing flick with pile-driving, melodramatic climaxes.
If so, they'll be settling for a shuck. Of course, it's poignant to see a once-promising slugger go begging for money from the fight game's bigwigs, cap in hand. But once he starts his resurgence, the moviemakers aren't as daring as Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Stallone and his co-star, Carl Weathers, patterning their fictional reigning champ Apollo Creed partly on Muhammad Ali, made Rocky's opponent a tower of live-wire charm. Howard makes Braddock's key antagonist, Max Baer, who really was Ali's precursor, nothing more than a sadistic buffoon. Craig Bierko plays him as a lout. It's a slanderous presentation of a lovable, charismatic character.
There's no irony within the film, but there's a whopping irony surrounding it. Just as Star Wars has finally ended, Rocky seems to be starting all over again.
The movie means to celebrate family values - the Braddocks' nadir comes when Mae (Renee Zell- weger) dispatches their two boys to her father's and their daughter to her sister's. "I promised him I would never send him away," says Braddock of their oldest son, then walks out the door to seek relief and reunite his family. But aren't in-laws family, too? And whatever happened to the notion that the Depression made family of us all? No one except stolid Jimmy Braddock and jumpy Joe Gould, and the officious Madison Square Garden matchmaker Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill), comes close to registering as a barely two-dimensional character.
Certainly not Mae. The way the script and Zellweger portray her, she caricatures the traditional "little woman." She acts all cutesy-wootsy during the good times, then with the help of Mrs. Gould, learns how hard it is for men to shoulder responsibility for a family's well-being.
The ever-canny Crowe adds just the right soupcon of bitters to his salt-of-the-earth character. In documentary footage, the real Braddock doesn't betray the seductive hints of sensitivity and sadness that Crowe lets leak into his eyes. But unlike his leader-of-men turn in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Crowe's not persuasive as a humble member of a community.
With his staccato delivery and darting eyes, Giamatti does the supportive sidekick to perfection, bucking Braddock up with memories of past victories and dictating his ring moves from the corner like a silent film director coaching his actors through a scene. But even when he pounds Braddock's body in a roughneck massage, he can't break through Crowe's "I'm-the-film-star" force field. And the rest of the characters are purely functional.
That terrific actor Paddy Considine (In America) plays an invented token radical, a former Wall Street broker who becomes Braddock's dockside work partner. All he does is remind us of how local police often cracked down on dissidents and the homeless. When he leaves the scene you mourn, "Paddy, we hardly knew ye."
The boxing scenes copy Scorsese's methods from Raging Bull in a slick and obvious way - subjective angles and tricks of editing and focus put us inside Braddock's head, and Gould weighs in on the soundtrack so that the action illustrates his patter ("jab, jab, punch").
It's a good thing, too, since in pure boxing terms, the Braddock-Baer fight ranks with one of the most boring title bouts in history. Howard's work has none of the elegance and clarity of Raoul Walsh's Gentleman Jim and Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, none of the originality and excitement of Ron Shelton's underrated Play it to the Bone, none of the lived-in funk of John Huston's Fat City.
When Braddock gets decked in his first comeback fight, Howard resorts to showing images of Braddock's starving family flashing through his head. It's as shameless as the old "B" boxing pictures where the hero's wife would show up ringside to proclaim, "Jimmy, your father is here and your mother forgives you." You wish Lenny Bruce were alive to tear this movie to ribbons.
SUN SCORE * 1/2 stars (1 1/2 stars)
Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti and Renee Zellweger
Directed by Ron Howard
Released by Universal
Time 144 minutes