Russell Crowe as Jim Braddock
Renée Zellweger as Mae Braddock
Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould
Craig Bierko as Max Baer
Paddy Considine as Mike Wilson
Bruce McGill as Mike Jacobs
Connor Price as Jay Braddock
Ariel Waller as Rosemarie Braddock
Patrick Louis as Howard Braddock
Nick Alachiotis as Max Baer’s Cornerman
James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) was a good boxer who never quite lived up to the promise of his talent. When the Great Depression came, it took everything he had, including his boxing ability it seemed. Losing fight after fight, he’s forced to give up boxing and try to find work on the docks, when work was to be had. And when it wasn’t, he swallows his pride and goes on welfare in order to keep food on the table for his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and his children (Connor Price; Ariel Waller; Patrick Louis).
His manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) finds one last fight for him, as a punching dummy in the undercard for the next heavyweight championship fight. Braddock takes the fight, not to win but to make enough money to keep his family together, and somehow wins, and then wins again and again.
Named ‘The Cinderella Man’ by the press, he finds himself preparing to fight the dreaded Max Baer (Craig Bierko) – known for killing men in the ring – for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
I’ll give you two guesses as to whether or not he wins without looking it up in the history books. That being said, despite relying on more than a few of the standard clichés of sports films (the loyal but disapproving wife, the evil opponent, the underdog hero), Cinderella Man rings true more often than it doesn’t. Like any great sports movie, the point of the film isn’t whether Braddock wins or loses the big fight so much as how and why he got to it.
Like the recent Seabiscut, Cinderella Man is a true story of a Depression-era sports hero who brings hope to himself and the public by defying the odds and winning when he shouldn’t. It’s easy to be cynical when a story is told and retold in different variations, but the Depression was a dark time for a lot of people and these events did (and sometimes still do) bring hope to people when they needed it most.
And director Ron Howard works hard to show just how much hope people needed. Food and sometimes even heat is scarce. Families are broken up in order to stay alive. Many men find themselves with only a choice between quiet desperation and violent frustration. The Depression section of the film goes on a bit too long – every time you think Braddock can’t be beaten down any more, he is, eventually having to beg for change from his former colleagues in order to keep his small hovel heated. Crowe carries the film forward in this section with his quiet dignity that even begging can’t shake.
When he does finally get around to boxing again the film springs to life and remains enjoyable (if not exactly uplifting) until the end. Howard stages the boxing matches simply but effectively, with an eye to serving the story more than trying to outdo all of the boxing films that have come before.
Paul Giamatti is terrific as Braddock’s manager Joe – whether he’s selling his furniture to help Braddock train or giving advice and talking trash in the corner – he brings just the right amount of honesty and irascibility to the role.
Zellweger gets stuck with the thankless disapproving wife role who doesn’t want her husband boxing for money to keep the family together even in the middle of the Depression when jobs were scarce. In actuality she’s probably not that far off from how the real Mae Braddock was – people really do act like this in real life – but it feels false because it’s been done on screen so much.
Craig Bierko is good at bringing out Baer’s clownish side and brutal boxing style in equal measure, but that’s about all he has to do. He doesn’t really exist except as the opponent Braddock must face and overcome to redeem himself and by extension the rest of the country.
Cinderella Man isn’t a great or original film, but it’s a pretty good one. An example of classic Hollywood filmmaking with another fine performance by Crowe, if you’ve never seen a sports movie before, Cinderella Man is a good one to make your first.
Rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language.