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"Cinderella Man" Review


Title: Cinderella Man

Starring: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Bruce McGill, Ariel Waller, Paddy Considine

Written by: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman

Directed by: Ron Howard

Rating: PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language.

Review by Stephen Silver

Boxing may be as good as dead as a major sport, with a heavyweight division plagued by corruption and mediocrity, and a complete lack of emerging personalities in the sports in the past decade. But ironically, the sweet science seems to have made a comeback at the multiplex, with Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" winning last year's Best Picture Oscar, and Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" heralded by many critics as an instant classic prior to its release this week.

But just as 'Baby' was never anywhere close to as good as its supporters claimed, "Cinderella Man" can't help but disappoint, falling victim to a deluge of overbearing schmaltz, a marked lack of subtlety, lackluster fight scenes, and large stretches of just plain boredom. Ron Howard has made an excellent movie, and a great movie could've been made from this story, but this is a marriage that just wasn't meant to be.

In the film Howard indulges every one of his very worst directorial tics: Out-of-place close-ups. An over-reliance on characters having "visions." Sledgehammer-like plot points that don't work because he's not as good at them as Spielberg is. Yet ironically "Cinderella Man" inverts Howard's usual formula: the ending is the best part, rather than the worst. But to get there, the viewer has to stay awake through the film's first hour- much more of a challenge than you would think.

"Cinderella Man" is the true story of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), a boxer in 1920s and '30s New York/New Jersey who inspired downtrodden Americans during the Great Depression. He ultimately reaches a climactic fight with heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), easily the most entertaining and intriguing character in the movie. Save for brief fight scenes and a totally unnecessary subplot about a union organizer friend of Braddock's, the film's first half consists entirely of Braddock's family (Renee Zelwegger and three kids) struggling through the Depression.

And that's the problem- it's too damn repetitive. Howard takes an hour to establish what he could've done in fifteen minutes. Power's turned off, heat's turned off; after awhile, Howard's got the point across, but then he keeps just making it away.

Lack of subtlety remains a problem throughout: in a late scene, Zelwegger enters a church and tells the priest "I'm here to pray for him [during Braddock's fight]." The point of the scene -that dozens of people were already at the church doing exactly the same thing- would've been made had the priest merely pointed wordlessly to the congregation, accompanied with a short camera pan. But instead, the priest actually says "You're not alone. They're all here. They're praying for him too," and then the camera lurks on the church for a few seconds too long. Gee, did Howard want to include a subtitle explaining the whole thing, in case no one got it?

Crowe, in his first starring role since "Master and Commander" two years ago, is good as always. But he's just not convincing as a boxer. He doesn't have the build, or the technique, and he's not helped in that boxing scenes look nothing like any real-life boxing I've ever seen, with villainous fighters getting away with blatant rules violations in plain sight of the referee numerous times in the film (the most important moment in "Million Dollar Baby" hinged on a similar fallacy). And even worse, Crowe for some reason doesn't look like Crowe in the fight scenes, which combined with the wild jump cuts makes them incredibly difficult to follow.

The film picks up steam when Bierko arrives as the flamboyant Baer- call him a non-fictional, Jewish version of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and every other big black fighter the working-class white hero has had to subdue in the "Rocky" films and all their knockoffs. He's been well-established, and the climactic fight plays just right up until the final payoff.

But yes, a movie about Baer's life probably would've been better than this one. Zelwegger, meanwhile, is unquestionably an Adrian figure, in her latest turn as an unappealing character with a regional accent.

The last collaboration among Howard, producer Brian Grazer and actor Russell Crowe was "A Beautiful Mind"- a mawkish, insulting film that both trivialized and lied about its protagonist, and may very well be the worst movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar. "Cinderella Man" is nowhere near that bad, but it also fails to measure up to either Howard's best films ("Night Shift," "Parenthood," "Apollo 13"), or other recent boxing pictures (Michael Mann's "Ali," or even "Million Dollar Baby.") On the bright side, Howard can be happy that of Hollywood boxing movies released in the past eight months by former Best Director winners, "Cinderella Man" is only the second most-overrated.

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