There may not have been enough jobs to go around during the Great Depression, but there were certainly enough folk heroes, and Cinderella Man introduces us to yet another one: Jim Braddock, the Seabiscuit of boxing. Like so many Americans, Braddock was down for the count in the early '30s. He'd once had a shot at the title, but that was several bouts ago, and when the stock-market crash relieved him of his savings, he wound up below the poverty line, trying to scrounge together enough cash to feed his family and keep the gas and electricity going. He might have sunk even farther if his manager, Joe Gould, hadn't gotten him a fight with an up-and-coming boxer who wasn't an up-and-coming boxer for long. Braddock, who'd kept in shape as a day hire on the loading docks of Hoboken and Weehawken, was on the comeback trail.
It was a trail that led straight to Max Baer, the King Kong of boxing. Baer had already killed two men in the ring. And not knowing what the rest of us know now ' that Braddock had an entire downtrodden nation behind him ' he may not have taken his title defense seriously enough. Either way, he lost on points. And Braddock, a 10-1 underdog, was suddenly the heavyweight champion of the world, the kind of guy whom movies would be made about years after his death. Directed by Ron Howard, Cinderella Man takes this real-life fairy tale and sprinkles yet more fairy dust over it. Russell Crowe's Braddock isn't just the man of the hour, sweeping the country off its feet with his rags-to-riches story. He's an American icon, the embodiment of all our hard work through hard times. In short, he's a bore.
Not that Crowe's boring. Scene after scene, he finds new ways to convey Braddock's courage and decency, his ability to take a punch, in or out of the ring. But the movie is one long fanfare for the common man, and not even the uncommon Crowe can withstand that kind of onslaught. Nor can RenÃe Zellweger, who's saddled with the role of the patient, loving wife. When the Braddocks wind up in a basement apartment that looks like something a sharecropper would turn up his nose at, you might expect a marital spat or two. Not in their saintly household. What this Cinderella story needs is a stepsister or two, someone who just might turn the carriage back into a pumpkin. As it is, only Craig Bierko's Baer poses much of a threat, and the movie briefly springs to life whenever he's around, playing the role of villain and fall guy. "I got a million-dollar body and a ten-cent brain," Baer said after losing to Braddock.
That goes for Cinderella Man as well. It's a lavishly mounted production, meticulously re-creating the earthy browns and somber grays of Depression-era New York. And the fight scenes, though a little too beholden to Martin Scorsese's fancy footwork in Raging Bull, have a crude beauty of their own, the fighters slugging away like street brawlers until one of them comes crashing down. But why does everything have to keep sliding into "once upon a time"? Only Paul Giamatti, as Braddock's cornerman, manages to cut through the movie's fairy-tale conventions, bringing the kind of piss and vinegar we associate with the sweat-stained world of boxing, but he's also the one who whispers "happily ever after." Maybe that's what folks needed to hear when their brothers couldn't spare a dime. But do we need to hear it today?