Combustible Celluloid
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With: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Bruce McGill, Ariel Waller, Paddy Considine, Craig Bierko
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Cliff Hollingsworth, from a story by Cliff Hollingsworth
Directed by: Ron Howard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language
Running Time: 140
Date: 05/23/2005

Cinderella Man (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fist Opportunities

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The amazing story of real-life boxer James J. Braddock pretty much tells itself, and in the new film Cinderella Man, director Ron Howard stays appropriately out of the way. After completely bungling his last three pictures (The Grinch, A Beautiful Mind and The Missing), that's a huge improvement.

Of course, Howard still betrays his usual clumsiness. The story's arc is as predictable as can be, the depression-era clothing and sets look more carefully designed than real, and a one-dimensional villain just about sinks everything, but the picture's overall goodwill and tense boxing sequences make up for a great deal.

Russell Crowe turns in a likeable performance as the promising fighter who broke his hand early in his career, suffered the indignities of poverty during the Great Depression, and then staged a stunning and nearly impossible comeback, beating Max Baer for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1935. Crowe plays Braddock as totally imperturbable, revealing an occasional twinkle in his eye; it's closer to the warmth and authority he demonstrated in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World than it is to the one-note brooding of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind.

Of the supporting players, Renee Zellweger has quite a bit less to do as Braddock's worrying wife; Howard did wonders with this same character in Apollo 13, but fails to repeat the trick here. And Paul Giamatti gives his usual good character performance as Braddock's trainer/manager.

The film really suffers when dealing with Baer (played by Craig Bierko) as the unredeemable villain who has killed two men in the ring, sneers at his opponents, breaks the rules and yells at prostitutes. I only wish Howard could have shaped this and the other performances a little, toning them down or leaving a bit of a rough edge.

For the boxing sequences, Howard mostly steals from Raging Bull (cutting with the pulse of the reporters' flash bulbs) and more or less pulls it off. Indeed, I'd rather see someone successfully steal from Scorsese than to use poorly shot fight scenes, as in last year's Against the Ropes.

The overall pleasant, saccharine quality of Cinderella Man will please a great many audience members, but also goes to prove exactly why Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby was such a great film.

Note: The real-life Max Baer (1909-1959) went on to a small movie acting career, appearing in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), with Abbott and Costello in Africa Screams (1949) and with Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall (1956), among other films.

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