Some call Ron Howard a boring director. Others call Russell Crowe an arrogant bastard. Regardless, when the two get together they make pretty good movies. "Cinderella Man," about the rise, fall and comeback of Depression-era boxer James Braddock, is a mini-triumph in the summer season - not necessarily award-winning but well-done from beginning to end.
Crowe, who rarely disappoints, takes on yet another extremely different character from those in the past. Here he plays devoted family man James Braddock, who just happened to be one of the best fighters in the ring before the Depression put 15 million Americans out of work and injuries forced him out of the ring. Braddock is never shown with fault, which makes you question how accurate this movie is, but the character presented here is the perfect protagonist, a likeable guy who never gives up and who "rallied a nation" Seabiscuit-style. Crowe is mesmerizing once again, though compared to some of the characters he has played in the past this one is probably the least ambitious. Nevertheless, he's fun to watch and makes a stellar lead.
In a supporting role, Paul Giamatti delivers one of his most mainstream performances to date, but even in a big budget film where he's relegated to a supporting role he shines almost as much as Crowe. You can tell this guy is on the verge of getting mainstream recognition, as he has been given much more screen time than the ordinary boxing manager would get. Hell, he [thankfully] gets more screen time than Renee Zellweger, who admittedly is pretty good here even though I generally can't stand her form of acting. She's never bad, but I'm still a little annoyed that she is allowed to call herself an Oscar-winning actress when I really have never seen a performance out of her that warrants such a title. Paddy Considine is also good in a very small role.
But boxing movies need more than just performances to succeed, and so the rest lies in the hands of director Ron Howard. I had never really noticed what some people called his boring direction; many consider him to be a very safe director. It's funny, because some of my favorite movies are works of his, namely "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind." Going into "Cinderella Man" after hearing all of the cynicism, however, I can see what people mean - "Cinderella Man" is a very safe movie. The direction is good, but not exceptional, and the story is a clean-cut, quasi-tearjerker that really throws no surprises. But honestly, who cares? Even if Howard is a safe director, he is a consistent director, and time and time again he churns out well-done movies. And for "Cinderella Man," that style is almost preferred to a grittier and more ambitious approach, as the look and feel of the film are perfect given the setting. Howard captures the desperation of the Depression very well (though I haven't seen too many movies that screw it up), and the boxing scenes aren't half bad, either. While I have seen boxing sequences done better, the fights here are still very exciting, especially Braddock's first comeback win and the final fight with Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
The movie could have used a bit of editing in a few parts as it lags at times, especially in the scenes leading up to the final fight. Howard drags his feet and spends too much time showing the hesitations between Braddock and his wife. Just get to the damn fight already!
"Cinderella Man" is a well-done boxing film with great acting from Crowe and Giamatti, exciting boxing scenes and a timeless story where an athlete rises from the ashes. Some critics have guessed it to be an undeniable Oscar contender; I'm sure I will see many better movies by the end of the year. That being said, if "Seabiscuit" can be nominated for Best Picture, "Cinderella Man" could definitely pull it off.
Now out on DVD, the movie comes equipped with over 20 minutes of deleted scenes, a 22-minute discussion the casting, a look at the history of boxing and much more. For a drama, the bonus features are definitely worth watching, and the movie is probably worth owning, if you like high quality by-the-numbers sports fare.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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