Sixty-five years after John Ford’s wrenching The Grapes of Wrath, Hollywood seems to have concluded that the Great Depression was, in fact, a pretty great time to be alive. Sure, regular work, money, and food were tough to come by, many had to subsist out on the streets, and countless families were forced to send their kids away to live with distant relatives just to keep them from starving. But amid this soul-crushing existence, they had that scrappy dark horse Seabiscuit to give them hope, and—as claimed by the tagline for Ron Howard’s new pugilistic fairy tale Cinderella Man—they also had James J. Braddock, who “when the country was on its knees…brought America to its feet.” Braddock was a fighter of some note in the late-1920s before the Depression (and heartless, capitalist athletic commissioners) knocked him down into anonymous destitution. Yet through a fortuitous second shot at boxing during the mid-1930s, the washed-up tough guy made an improbable run at the heavyweight championship.
As dramatized with a hearty slathering of schmaltz by screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, Howard’s uplifting real-life yarn casts Braddock’s unlikely return to glory as a mushy (if mildly stirring) paean to Americans’ can-do gumption and unwavering, persevering spirit. Utilizing a tried-and-true formula of the down-on-his-luck schmo who becomes a mythic figure of courageousness by believing in himself, the value of hard work, and the fairness of his country’s economic system (regardless of his welfare-assisted situation), this old-fashioned inspirational weepie might have been made during the 1930s. And given its straightforward and predictable rags-to-riches, David-versus-Goliath narrative, Cinderella Man (re-teaming Howard and Russell Crowe after 2001’s A Beautiful Mind) proves well-suited to the filmmaker’s bland, safe aesthetic, a combination of overly melodramatic directorial flourishes and competent staging designed to efficiently manipulate one’s tear ducts.
Working with cinematographer Salvatore Totino, Howard drenches his period piece in sepia-toned browns and yellows that exude the faded beauty of archival photos. Furthermore, his boxing scenes—like the film’s storybook atmosphere, more indebted to Rocky than Raging Bull—exhibit a spatial lucidity and blood-soaked physicality that convey the brutality of life in the ring and are only sporadically marred by cheesy instances of in-fight flashbacks, unrealistic fisticuffs between Braddock (Crowe) and murderous champ Max Baer (a hammy Craig Bierko), and X-ray images of our hero’s debilitating internal injuries. Unfortunately, as is his wont, Howard’s direction regularly resorts to the most hackneyed and cheaply sentimental images possible in an effort to elicit waterworks. When Braddock discovers that the family’s early morning milk delivery has been cancelled due to overdue debts, he’s illuminated by a single, pitiful spotlight, and when the despicable Baer is shown killing an opponent in film footage, Howard zooms in tight to capture a laughable shot of the glowering villain glaring directly into the camera.
Time and again, Howard aggressively goes for the syrupy jugular rather than allowing his inherently poignant story to throw its own punches, and thus by the climactic showdown, one feels exhausted by the film’s belligerent mawkishness. Matters aren’t helped by the phony Renée Zellweger (as Braddock’s wife Mae), who speaks in a baby-girl voice and dons a hairstyle suited for a 10-year-old, nor by the misused Giamatti, who’s cornered into doing tough-talkin’, wise-cracking shtick as Braddock’s trainer/manager Joe Gould. Crowe, however, gracefully prevents Cinderella Man from suffering a TKO. Imbuing his Braddock with a rousing resolve born not from heroism but from necessity, and underlying the character’s somewhat disingenuous flawlessness (in an epilogue, the film recounts his saintly post-boxing deeds, which included a WWII military stint and helping to construct the Verrazano bridge) with a barely suppressed frustration, he’s the authentic emotional meat-and-potatoes of Howard’s otherwise sugary-sweet fable.