Ron Howard directed a lot of movies I didn't like, then the excellent A Beautiful Mind . Russell Crowe, who starred in that movie, discovered the story of another big life: boxer Jim Braddock. He brought the story to Howard. They have tried to capture lightning in a bottle again in the film Cinderella Man .
In 1928, Jim Braddock, played by Crowe, is a regular guy at the top of his game. He's the Brooklyn Bulldog, two time Golden Gloves champion for the state of New York. He fights in Madison Square Garden. He has never been knocked out. He is happily married to Mae, Renee Zellweger, and has three cute kids.
By 1933, the Depression is in full swing, and their comfortable house has become a tiny apartment in Jersey with nothing in it left to sell. 15 million people are out of work. Braddock now fights to keep the heat and the lights on. He also does shift work on the docks, when he can get it. But the debt is closing in, and his body is betraying him. He breaks his hand one too many times, and his boxing license is revoked.
No boxing movie ever provided its hero with such motivation. Mae cuts the milk with water; Braddock unloads sacks of grain with a shattered hand; and the kids huddle under a blanket, their breath visible in the darkness. When Braddock finally gets another fight, these are the images he sees. He's as surprised and amused as anyone at how powerful this makes him. His opponent's manager says, "Come on, you beat this guy before." The boxer says, "This ain't the same guy."
I was almost cheering. But then the air starts to go out of the tires. The movie provides two cardboard villains: a venal promoter and a sadistic boxer who hits men so hard their brains detach. They are intended as a half-baked metaphor for what went wrong with America. Braddock's friend Mike, who was becoming an interesting character, dies on the altar of symbolism.
Paul Giamatti is Braddock's manager, Joe Gould. It's a shamelessly sentimental performance, exactly what Howard wanted. He provides a running commentary on the fights, telling you what every punch means. We can see for ourselves that two men are beating each other up; the action is its own explanation. And though it may not be a fair comparison, in A Beautiful Mind , Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly were flint and steel. Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger are flint and a dishrag.
Crowe is starring in a much better movie than the one that surrounds him. Director Howard is so eager to please, he's so afraid you'll miss something, he pre-chews your food. Cinderella Man had only one character I believed in and cared about. But I believed in him fully, and even with eroded goodwill, I cared until the lights came up.
Cinderella Man is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.