An exquisite ode to a working-class hero, “Cinderella Man” takes the almost impossibly perfect elements of the saga of underdog boxer James J. Braddock and fills it with emotional gravitas, wrenching danger and a panoramic sense of American life during the Great Depression. Oscar winner “A Beautiful Mind” seems a warmup to this main event, in which helmer Ron Howard grasps the full measure of artistry he’s often reached for, and gifted thesp Russell Crowe limns a role he seems born to play. Universal’s summer release strategy seems riskier than Braddock’s final bout, but solid, sustained B.O. boosted by glowing critical response — with a late-round re-release during awards season — could deliver winning results.
It’s unavoidable to compare Braddock’s arc of triumph — from contender to washed-up club fighter to heavyweight championship challenger — with the story of Seabiscuit. But “Cinderella Man” far outpaces that pic, thanks to an exceptionally developed story, a roster of career-worthy performances and a hero who can speak.
Despite its seemingly simplistic outline of a can-do spirit triumphing during the Depression the film plumbs the angry depths Howard sounded in his tough, underappreciated Western “The Missing,” and only hinted at before that.
Howard, with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, exhibits a loving understanding of Warners’ raw 1930s films of desperate working-class lives and hard-scrabble heroes, and of the boxing genre from “Champion” to “Raging Bull.”
Crowe’s Braddock is a good family man of stalwart but never self-destructive pride who explains his reason for boxing is to put milk on his kids’ table.
Making the connection between Braddock’s career trajectory and the nation’s fortunes, the film somewhat excessively superimposes dates and locations to briefly chronicle his ring successes of the ’20s, and his losses just as the Depression hit. By 1932, Braddock was broke.
Pic is divided between Braddock’s struggles at home and his unprecedented comeback. Both aspects are brilliantly supported — the first by Renee Zellweger as Braddock’s plucky wife, Mae, the second by Paul Giamatti as his trusty trainer/manager Joe Gould.
A gentle pan shot shifts from the Braddocks’ comfy home during the good times to a bleak one-room cold-water flat four years later in New Jersey, where Braddock, Mae and kids Jay, Rosemarie and Howard scrape by. When Jay (Connor Price) is caught stealing a sausage from a meat store, Braddock treats him with understanding and assures the boy he won’t be sent to live with richer relatives.
Things get worse. Braddock is so inept in a 1933 bout that his boxing license is revoked. He winds up looking for work on the Hoboken loading docks (the location of “On the Waterfront”).
He finds an ally in co-worker Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), a former Wall Street broker-turned-radical and the film’s most significant fictional creation. A measure of the script’s craft is how well Mike is integrated with the reality-based characters, serving as a way for the pic to comment on the politics of the times.
Braddock reaches bottom in a sequence that a more insistent director might have pushed over the top, when Mae sends the kidsoff to relatives while Braddock is away at work. Pale and drawn, Crowe looks like the life is being sucked out of him as he realizes Mae’s well-intentioned action means his promise to Jay has been broken.
Begging for change from his former boxing associates at a Madison Square Garden hangout, Braddock is reunited with Joe on the offer of a one-time match.
Gradually, the workings of the sweet science and the business behind it take the forefront, somewhat backgrounding Mae (who makes a point of never attending a bout). Yet Zellweger’s side of the story continues to provide surprising moments, as when she discovers Joe and wife Lucille (Linda Kash, in an aces cameo) are so determined to maintain appearances that they live in their gorgeous apartment sans furniture.
Final hour ratchets up the tension as Braddock counters skeptics and wins matches, ultimately earning a bout with ferocious heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko). Pic shows the magnitude of the mountain Braddock must climb when a promoter shows Braddock film of Baer’s roundhouse punches killing opponents.
If there’s any complaint in the finely judged lead-up to the climax, it’s in the easy way the pic paints Baer as the bad guy. Result is a far less dimensional Baer than in Jeremy Schaap’s new Braddock biography (also “Cinderella Man,” both borrowed their titles from colorful scribe Damon Runyon).
As the grueling match develops, and Baer’s seeming supremacy is challenged by Braddock’s wiliness, the champ’s emerging desperation suddenly makes Bierko’s cocky superstar human.
Fight scenes are consistently well-drawn and balanced (by editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley) between close-ups, long shots and reaction shots around the ring, with a deliberate lack of filmic fanciness. The structural mastery of the Baer fight results in a marvelously tense movie-within-a-movie that raises the bar for the fight genre.
Pre-credit notes about Braddock’s and Mae’s life afterward feel anticlimactic, but provide a moment to consider the actual pummeling Crowe and Bierko went through for the cameras.
Taking this performance alongside his work on “Master and Commander,” it’s reasonable to place Crowe in the company of the leading men who brought great humanity to classical roles, from Spencer Tracy to James Stewart. As Braddock, Crowe’s eyes have never seemed so full of unspoken sadness and ferocity, with his body language ranging from spent hopelessness to a single coiled muscle preparing to strike.
Interplay with Zellweger is electric, with both matched step for step by Giamatti, in a performance that many will far prefer to his turn in “Sideways.” Indeed, Giamatti is the film’s onscreen audience, showing his pain at Braddock’s flubs and amazement by his turnaround.
Overall casting by Howard, Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson is inspired.
Lenser Salvatore Totino, who did excellent work in “The Missing,” has a more ambitious range of images and moods here, and creates a virtual gallery of Depression life from the most intimate to the most cosmopolitan. Wynn Thomas’ sensitive production design is remarkably human-scale for this kind of pic.Thomas Newman’s score, blessedly short on Irish motifs, is the only element a bit too in love with its own sense of grandness.