Review: “Cinderella Man”

Already being described as “Seabiscuit without the horse”, ‘Cinderella’ shares many commonalities with last year’s racing flick in terms of it being a Depression-era underdog story with strong production values and committed performances. Like “Seabiscuit” though, the film is hampered by a deliberately crowd pleasing and emotionally manipulative script which verges on the edge of clunky. Yet already many are praising this as an early Oscar contender and admitting up front they spotted the problems, but fell so much for the story they didn’t mind being manipulated.

I’m not one of those people. Maybe because the Depression era or boxing in general hold absolutely no interest for me that I just don’t get this film. On the one hand “Cinderella” is astutely made and despite it’s Summer release slot, is as finely crafted in terms of its production quality and performances as your average Oscar contender. On the other, its so one-dimensional it makes the overrated but still superb “A Beautiful Mind” seem infinitely superior in comparison. The fact is this shares much more in common with the likes of those Jimmy Stewart flicks like “It’s a Wonderful Life” as in being an adult drama that’s borderline fantasy and starring a hero that’s too good for words.

In the blue corner is the film’s strengths. Crowe never gives less than a committed performance and does his usual remarkable work here. Despite being burdened with a character that’s so saintly good it’d be laughable in the wrong hands, Crowe brings a gravitas to the role – combining it with a stronger, leaner and more world-weary appearance than normal he’s a superb base to build a film around even if this is hardly his most challenging work. Not faring so well is Renee Zellweger, once again given an atrocious accent and stuck in the dutiful house wife part, she has little to do but offer some minor support and serve as a warm body for Jim to hold in tough times.

The real equal of this film is Paul Giamatti as Crowe’s manager/trainer, with the pair’s quiet conversational scenes together easily the film’s best and most touching moments. Props should also go to the supporting actors and the production departments. Wardrobe, set design and cinematography all combine to deliver an effectively believable recreation of the 1930’s without the sepia-toned cleanliness of “Seabiscuit”. This was a time of poverty, grime, and struggle – all come out fine onscreen.

In the red corner is the faults which predominantly circle around the script and Howard’s direction. “A Beautiful Mind” drew controversy on its release for its whitewashing of certain facts about its title character. “Cinderella” isn’t a whitewash so much as a bleach. Braddock is so close to being a priest in his goodness that it simply doesn’t feel believable. Likewise the villain of the piece, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), is portrayed as a deliberately evil near neanderthal with the bloodlust of a killer for hire.

A subplot about labour organizer doesn’t go far, though as the film tends towards its focus of the final boxing showdown, it does become a more cohesive and enjoyable whole. The boxing scenes are superbly shot, packing a punch and power that makes them feel jarringly real. There’s the odd scene where the emotional pull works (such as a touching no dialogue farewell to his wife and kids), but they’re far too few in a film that’s already way too long and unevenly paced. Other moments feel almost directly pulled from the far superior likes of “Rocky” and “Raging Bull”, the former being an equally manipulative exercise but one that even today strikes with far more resonance despite being clumsier in its execution.

Howard has become a master at delivering tales that seem tailor made to please crowds and critics alike. I must admit I’ve liked many of his efforts as well, to this day I think “Apollo 13” is a truly fantastic movie. Yet ‘Cinderella’ never caught me in its spell and certainly doesn’t approach Howard’s best work (even if its one of the better films in a year that has pretty much sucked so far). Maybe because the manipulations seem to be painted with a blunter brush, maybe because what could’ve been a solid story has been reduced to something corny, schmaltzy and lacking in either humour, real emotion or originality.

This is one of the films that if the story pulls you in, you’ll go with it. At moments it almost had me, but for the most part I just felt cold and watched with all the interest of a disgruntled spectator. Its a good alternative for adults seeking something other than the empty bang a minute thrills of Summer movies, but despite its more grown-up appearance – its just as shallow and predictable in its heart.