They don’t make movies the way they used to, and Cinderella Man shows why. Before it opened, Universal thought it had a certain hit on its hands. The film features two of the most bankable names on any marquee in the world: Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger. Its director, Ron Howard, had teamed with Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind,” and they brought in its screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, to customize the script by Cliff Hollingsworth. Howard had proved his skill with macho nobility in “Apollo 13.” The public showed it still loved sentimental boxing films with its enthusiastic response to Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” In ticket sales, this might even become the second coming of “Rocky.” And in this dark season of terrorism and outsourcing, audiences were ready for an inspiring triumph over hard times, as they had shown by throwing a double dose of oats at “Seabiscuit.” The advance reviews had enough thumbs up to rival a hitchhikers’ convention.
Then by midnight of the opening day of “Cinderella Man,” its bandwagon turned into a pumpkin. During its autopsy phase, the more thoughtful movie journalists and Universal’s boardroom brain trust have been inclined to blame timing. This is the season for splashy comic book films targeted to 12-year-olds newly freed from the burdens of forced literacy. It was a bad match. This youthful audience thinks “the Depression” is something that happens when their Ritalin and Prozac are out of balance, and “hard times” mean that their cellphone battery has gone dead. Bummer. And boxing is, like, dull, compared to the World Wrestling Federation on television.
Placing the blame on audiences, timing and marketing strategy might be the obvious explanation for the disappointment of a fine film with high expectations, but it is not the whole story. In every phase of preproduction, “Cinderella Man” made all the right moves, as we have seen, but to a fault. It relied so much on proven formulas and known entities that it failed in originality. This is an old-fashioned movie that punches right to the heartstrings. It is beautifully crafted, but it consists of 15 rounds of carefully orchestrated sentiment and inspiration. It is too self-consciously sweet for its own good.
Frank Capra was giving audiences similar Depression-era moral fables with Gary Cooper and James Stewart in the 1930’s, when breadlines were still within sight of the box office lines. “Cinderella Man” gives the impression of having been done many times before, a long time ago. It is the standard issue biopic, predictable and thus, at its worst moments, contrived in its efforts to create emotion or tension on the way to a foregone conclusion. The genre is punched out; this is a boxing film with no fight left in it.
In making this in the Capra style, Ron Howard misread his contemporary audience. Moviegoers have become much more sophisticated than they were in the 1930’s. Films directed to an adult audience, like this one, need some shading to the characters and some complexity in the storyline, if they are going to hold the attention for two hours and 20 minutes. Howard relies on time-tested movie techniques: surging violins, quivering lips and misty eyes. He uses them effectively, but his directorial skill does not rescue the predictable script and one-dimensional characters.
“Cinderella Man” relies on an old-fashioned linear narrative, complete with printed titles superimposed to set the chronology. It begins in 1928 with James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), the Bulldog of Bergen (New Jersey), a young light-heavyweight contender, dispatching his opponent and ends with his winning the heavyweight championship in 1935. Even if someone didn’t realize that Braddock was a historical sports figure, the title of the film would have given away the ending.
In a jolting jump in time, the action leaps forward to 1933, when Braddock’s career had taken the 10 count. He moved his family from their comfortable home to a basement apartment near the docks on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Each morning he shapes up with other stevedores, hoping for a day’s work, just as Marlon Brando had in “On the Waterfront.” He occasionally gets extra cash by taking matches in smoky fight clubs around New York. He takes on one opponent despite a broken hand, and the fight is so dismal that the commissioner revokes his license.
The reasons for his downfall emerge through hazy fragments of dialogue wafted throughout the later action, but none is terribly enlightening. He was beaten badly in one fight. He had some unspecified injuries, including an automobile accident, but nothing is explained. The Depression is to blame. But wait a minute. Top athletes were making a bundle. The country was looking for heroes and flocking to sports events for distraction from its troubles. A good boxer, especially a serious contender like Braddock, could have done fairly well, at least well enough to get proper medical attention for his injuries. And if fighters lost their licenses every time they turned a bout into a rhumba contest to protect a broken hand, ESPN would have to go back to Roller Derby.
James J. Braddock is too passive and simply too good-hearted to be dramatically engaging. His life, and his downfall, just seem to happen to him. He would be a better movie hero if he had something to do with his initial failure, like cockiness, drink, lack of training or something. Anything. When a boxer in a featured event at Madison Square Garden is injured, the suspension is temporarily lifted and Braddock takes the fight on one day’s notice. His comeback, no less than his downfall, is based on luck. As his fortunes rise, he trains hard and fights with courage, in true Rocky style, but he has overcome nothing in himself. Braddock may well have been as consistently upright and even-tempered as he appears in the film, but since when have biographers been afraid to touch up their subjects a bit to tell a more gripping story?
Now for the good news. Russell Crowe almost makes the film work with his sublime re-creation of Jim Braddock. Despite a script that offers few opportunities for character development, he makes a dull character interesting in his ordinariness. We can’t help but like Jim Braddock, even if we would not find him a scintillating companion during an all-night drive to Cleveland. If the film had better numbers at the box office, Crowe would certainly be an Oscar contender. The most complex figure, however, is Braddock’s trainer and manager, Joe Gould, wonderfully brought to life by Paul Giamatti. Joe is loyal to his fighter and to his own best interests in equal amounts. He bobs and weaves between the two competing loyalties like a young Sugar Ray Robinson.
The other characters are pure Capra, that is, incarnations of unadulterated good and evil. Renée Zellweger as Jim’s wife, Mae, plays the devoted mother with Sally Fields’s spunk and Betty Hutton’s squints. She tries to be a Donna Reed girl next door with a Brooklyn accent, and gamely tries to salvage credibility for several embarrassingly contrived scenes. Bruce McGill, the heartless boxing commissioner (Jimmy Johnston), would have been played by Edward Arnold in the Capra era. With his heavy jowls, he looks nasty in a Caligula sort of way. Speaking of nasty, the menacing, glowering Max Baer (Craig Bierko), reigning heavyweight champion of the world, not only kills two men in the ring, he insults Mae. In Capraland, that seals his doom.
The script also slips in its Reaganesque political message. The union organizer, Paddy Considine (Mike Wilson) drinks, misses Mass to work a double shift on Sunday, threatens to beat his wife and is suspected of having socialist sympathies. He gets the appropriate comeuppance. The self-reliant Jim Braddock is shown as hitting bottom when he has to apply for public assistance to keep his family together, a humiliation matched only by his having to pass the hat among his old cronies at the Madison Square Garden bar. He regains his dignity by self-reliance and hard work and of course good luck, which many other victims of the Depression did not have in such abundance.