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The true life story of Jim Braddock is a great tale to tell but Cinderella Man is not a great telling of that tale.

The Fighting Irish

Russell Crowe stands out in a crowd
Russell Crowe stands out in a crowd

Jim Braddock was a good man. That’s simple enough. A family man, an honorable man, an honest man, an Irishman, and a boxer. Living through the Great Depression, he provided for his family (a wife and three children) by boxing his way up the rankings, only to endure a broken hand and a rapid descent into boxing oblivion.

Landing the occasional day job on the New York docks, doing his best to hide his injury, Braddock (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) continually lived life in a state of hope and determination.

Both would ultimately pay off when Braddock was given another chance to enter the ring. If nothing else, it would earn him a couple bucks to put food on the table. His big comeback match, pitting him against the murderous blows of Max Baer (Craig Bierko, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), was the stuff of an unlikely fairy tale (or, at least, a Rocky Balboa movie), but it’s all true. It’s also true, when times were at their bleakest, Braddock sought the government’s financial assistance to help pull him through the darkness. It’s even true, when things turned around, that Braddock paid the government back.

The world could use more men like James J. Braddock.

The Bulldog of Bergen

Crowe is absolutely first rate as Braddock and (a rather chunky) Paul Giamatti (Sideways) is in fine acting form as his manager and quasi-good Samaritan Joe Gould.

Merely serviceable is Renee Zellweger as Jim’s wife, Mae. She provides the same spunk as Adrian does with Rocky, offering the voice of reason, concern, and frustrated love. But Zellweger purses her plucky lips one or two times too many and her slight cinematic presence pales when standing next to Crowe.

Production-wise, problems abound in this warm and fuzzy bio-pic. First off, under Ron Howard’s direction, the Great Depression is put in the saccharine-sweet glow of a Hallmark greeting card. The closest the film gets to true grit is its brief visit to Hooverville, the shanty town that cropped up in Central Park, giving some degree of shelter to those left homeless and truly down and out.

Having previously teamed on A Beautiful Mind, Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman are clearly making a run for another set of Oscars. But A Beautiful Mind allowed for some clever artistic license that, while playing loose with the facts, created a fine drama buoyed by terrific performances from Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Here Goldsman and Howard seem a bit punch drunk.

Goldsman has made a career out of adapting lives, novels, and other media into films, with only one original screenplay to his credit (the virtually forgotten Silent Fall). He’s a franchise slayer with his cinematic lightweights Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and Lost in Space. And, for better or worse, Goldsman has also produced the screenplays for the forthcoming Memoirs of a Geisha and The Da Vinci Code. Hopefully his work on Cinderella Man will pale in comparison to those two high-profile projects.

While the story itself is good, it spends too much time on the less interesting moments in Braddock’s life, moments which were no doubt supposed to engender some sort of sympathy, empathy, or drama. Adding to the film’s malaise is another generic score from Thomas Newman, who can add it to his growing list of generics, including Meet Joe Black and Pay It Forward. His work here is more sleepy than sweepy.

The Hope of the Irish

With so much currently in doubt in the world, now is the perfect time to revisit the life of Jim Braddock. His is a tremendous character study in the very concept of character and integrity.

Unfortunately, Cinderella Man delivers only soft jabs and never works up the strength required for a knockout. While it shares the same simple, slow pacing of the first Rocky and The Natural, here the emphasis is even further removed from the sporting roots and more steadfastly placed in the drama, with boxing merely serving as one of the plot points.

As for the boxing matches, they’re lifeless recreations of the real thing; merely sucker punches, they’re like the right-armed flailing of a southpaw.

Sure, there are some fine, goose-bump inducing moments, such as the crowd praying for Jim at the local Catholic Church before the big Baer bout. But everything Howard, Goldsman, and Newman touch in Cinderella Man is handled with kid gloves and a warm glow that makes the Depression era seem so golly-gee gosh darn inviting.

It’s ironic, then, that a film about a great American (played by a great New Zealander) lacks the integrity and determination of its inspiration.