Cinderella Man had some ominous press. Critics described the film as “schmaltz” and a “tear-jerker.” The movie’s ads claim that “When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet,” which leaves us with little room to do anything but cheer in advance. The film’s trailer emphasized how depression-era people found Crowe’s character James J. Braddock an “inspiration.” With all this kind of ersatz clichéd Rocky triumph-of-the-human-spirit hoopla, how could the film be any good?
Oddly, I liked Cinderella Man mostly because of its acting, but also because there’s enough Depression-era desperation to make the melodrama seem earned. The story begins with James J. Braddock doing quite well as a middling-level boxer knocking out guys in
Now, this may sound like sentimental claptrap, but somehow Russell Crowe’s surefooted relaxed acting with the help of the excellent support of Paul Giametti as his roly-poly manager and agent Joe Gould, the film works. While the boxing profession is never glorified, Braddock finds that he prefers fighting someone in a ring to taking on a perverse fate that deprives him of the ability to earn a wage. After some time has passed, Joe Gould lucks onto one last fight for Jim because no one else would take on a fighter without time to train. On an empty stomach, Jim abruptly gulps down some hash in the dressing room and comes up with a brand new one-two punch that freakishly defeats his opponent, which ultimately sets him up to fight his way back into prominence. Given his recent poverty, the press picks up on his story, the unemployed find themselves rooting for their man, and Jim further cements his mythical status by returning to the government the money he claimed on welfare. Naturally, Mae is torn between pride for her husband and concern for his health as he moves toward a fight with heavy-weight champion Max Baer (hulking Tim Curry lookalike Craig Bierko) who has already killed two men by knocking their brains loose in the ring.
Does the movie pull on the heart-strings by shamelessly cutting back to Zellweger’s concerned face and the cute kids during boxing scenes? Yes. Does the film include the obligatory Rocky training montage? Yes. Does director Ron Howard emphasize every injury even to the point of including x-ray footage of ribs cracking and Crowe grimacing? Yes, again. Is there a fairy-tale aspect to the whole thing? Is there an obligatory Irish priest? Of course. Yet, thanks to its sustained tensions, Cinderella Man remains a contender amongst boxing movies.