Touted as the first of this year's Oscar hopefuls, Cinderella Man certainly has all the right elements. This is heartfelt real-life story about triumphing over adversities, powered by tremendous performances and a spot-on director. But unfortunately, the film doesn't make much of a lasting impression. And if it doesn't stick now, there's no way Academy voters will remember it later.
As one of history's better sports stories, Cinderella Man focuses on legendary prizefighter James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), who, during the Great Depression, became a common-man hero. Once a boxer on the rise, Braddock hits rock bottom with the rest of the broken-down, beaten-up and out-of-luck American populace, and is forced to give up his dreams of being a world champion to find work. We get to sit around with Braddock, his loving, supportive but weepy wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and their starving, cold children for the first hour of the film, feeling mightily depressed indeed. But then things pick up when Braddock gets a last-chance bid to make something of himself by returning to the ring. Spurred on by an inner determination--and his hardnosed manager, Joe (Paul Giamatti)--Braddock miraculously makes an almost mythical rise to the top. The underdog to beat all underdogs--yes, even topping a nobody horse named Seabiscuit--the pugilist ends up taking on the heavyweight champ of the world, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who's renowned for having killed two men in the ring. And wins. The roar from the people, who look to their ''Cinderella Man'' as their champion, is deafening.
Chris Rock said it the best: ''If you're gonna do a movie about the past, you best to get Russell's ass!'' It's absolutely true. The Oscar-winning Crowe has an uncanny knack for taking anything period and making it seem contemporary, be it clashing swords in the gladiator ring in ancient Rome or working out equations on a library window as a brilliant but trouble 1950s mathematician. So it seems natural Crowe would once again turn in a stellar performance as the Depression-era boxer who rallies from the depths of despair to become a world champion. Of course, Crowe did have to learn how to box--and apparently injured his shoulder pretty severely during the process--but it was all in a day's work for this hardworking Method actor. He also is supported by a superlative cast, including Zellweger as Braddock's devoted yet longsuffering wife. The actress may be a bit more pinched-face than usual, having to play cold and hungry most of the time, but she still does an admirable job. The biggest standout, however, is Giamatti as the beleaguered but sharp-as-a-tack manager, who does everything in his power to get Braddock back in the ring--and keep him there. Someone just needs to give this man an Oscar. Pronto.
Of course, everyone is calling Cinderella Man this summer's Seabiscuit. Granted, the comparisons are numerous--underdog plot, the Great Depression, down-trodden men who need some kind of hope to get them back on their feet again, a nation rallying behind them. But Seabiscuit didn't have the powerhouse duo of Crowe and director Ron Howard to back it up. Their special brand of mojo made A Beautiful Mind, another rather staid biopic, the Oscar winner of 2001. It only makes sense they would try for it again with Cinderella Man's inspirational story. While the first part of the film discourages you a bit, it's necessary to set up Braddock's desperation and ultimate fortitude. Once we hit the ring, however, the action is nonstop and riveting, making you shout from your seat. Howard now joins the handful of directors, including Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), who can effectively cause this reaction by watching two men (or women, in Eastwood's case) pummel each other. But as far as Cinderella's Oscar chances, it's a tough call because: a) it is the beginning of summer and b) it's not a film you carry around with you once you leave the theater. Perhaps if the studio does a blitzkrieg Oscar marketing campaign similar to Seabiscuit, it might work. We'll see.
Honestly, how can you not root for a movie about a Depression-era underdog prizefighter who beats the odds and wins it big? It seems anti-American or something. But
Cinderella Man may not have the stamina to make it through the onslaught of year-end Oscar gold diggers.