You might as well line up the Oscars right now. Cinderella Man, the latest teaming of prestige-baiting director Ron Howard, actor Russell Crowe, producer Brian Grazer and writer Akiva Goldsman, hits all the right notes to get Academy voters' hearts aflutter and make mainstream audiences swoon. It does so in a completely bland, predictable and uninteresting way, but Howard and his cohorts know exactly how to push the right buttons and hide their flaws under such a glossy sheen that only a hardened cynic will come away from the film unmoved.
I'm that cynic, as I find each of Howard's "inspiring true story" tearjerkers successively less and less inspiring. Cinderella Man, like Howard's Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, takes a real-life triumph over adversity and polishes it until it shines, in the process straining out anything but the most predictable and manipulative elements. In that sense, Howard plays his audience like a violin and succeeds masterfully at what he sets out to do. From the moment we first see boxer Jim Braddock (Crowe), we root for him. A few years before the Great Depression, Braddock is an up-and-coming boxer from New Jersey, considered a good prospect for a long career. He's got a nice, little house in the suburbs with his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and three kids, and things are swell.
Of course, you don't have to know anything about Braddock's life to know that when the big stock-market crash of 1929 hits, things aren't going to be so swell anymore. Not only does Braddock lose money like everyone else in the country, but he also suffers a series of injuries that effectively end his boxing career. Within a few years, he's living in a run-down room with his family, trying to make ends meet working down at the docks. When his old manager (Paul Giamatti) gives him a chance for one last fight, he seizes the chance but doesn't expect anything other than a final farewell to the ring.
What he gets, however, is a surprise victory and a chance to return to boxing. A series of improbable triumphs lead him to the opportunity to battle for the heavyweight championship against a brutal, heavily favored opponent (Craig Bierko), years after the boxing community essentially gave up on him. It's an uplifting story, one of the better-known tales in the sports world, and Howard handles it exactly as you'd expect. Like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man ties its hero's sports success to the country's hopes of coming out of the Depression, and like Seabiscuit, is guilty of gross oversimplification. It's not as schmaltzy as Gary Ross' treacly, endless horse-racing film, though, and thankfully doesn't oversell the tenuous Depression metaphor.
Instead, it oversells the metaphor of Braddock's victories healing his broken family, which is nearly as sappy and disingenuous. Howard's domestic scenes are trite and obvious, with Zellweger emoting in a bland, underwritten role. When he gets in the ring, though, Howard comes alive, and unencumbered by clumsy storytelling, he's able to effectively convey the visceral excitement of the matches, turning in some of the best, most immediate boxing scenes in recent cinema. He seems unsure of his ability to convey enough emotion with the boxing alone, however, throwing in unnecessary and heavy-handed flashbacks to Braddock's tough home life, as if we've forgotten in the last minute why the fighter is working so hard to win.
As in A Beautiful Mind, Crowe's performance elevates the film above its hackneyed script and Howard's ham-handed direction. His Braddock is subdued, even shy at times, but never more alive than when he's in the ring. Crowe nails the Jersey accent and guarded emotions of a working-class hero who doesn't know how to handle his sudden fame. Giamatti, who's risen to acclaim in prickly roles in unconventional indie films, takes an easy route here as Braddock's wisecracking coach, but he's a warm, entertaining presence on the screen, nonetheless.
For undemanding viewers, Cinderella Man will be as much of a pleasure as any of Howard's other award-baiting films. But its charms are skin-deep and rote, technically proficient and signifying very little. Just because Howard had the budget to re-create Depression-era locations doesn't mean he's evoked anything other than a rosy-colored (or sepia-toned, as the cinematography demonstrates) view of the time, a little more dramatically moving but no more honest than the manipulative and faux-prestigious Seabiscuit.