"Cinderella Man", directed by Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") is a near great film. Howard does an outstanding job of bringing the Great Depression to life. In an early scene, we see Jim and Mae enjoying their comfortable life. The camera pans across their dresser revealing the trinkets and jewelry they own. After a few moments of black, the camera pans back across a dresser and reveals the only item left; Jim's false tooth. This is an effective method of showing us the change in their circumstances. This one image quickly and effectively shows us what most filmmakers would go to great pains to present within thirty minutes of screen time. Howard is an accomplished filmmaker and "Cinderella Man" is yet another great example of his skill.
Working with Russell Crowe again, the two have created a film that is similar in some ways to their accomplished "A Beautiful Mind". Both films tell the story of a man who overcomes many obstacles, but the two characters are very different. As I watched the film, I was amazed at how quickly Crowe managed to make me forget I was watching him. I believed he was Jim Braddock. After the first fight, he goes home and flirts with Mae, plays with his kids and then he and Mae are sitting outside in their garden. During this scene, Crowe convinced me that Braddock was so deeply in love that if Mae ever left him, he would be a wreck. Consider that we just watched him beat the stuffing out of another boxer and then we immediately watch the same man reveal his vulnerability, yet in a very subtle, moving way. All of this just from his facial expressions. As the family struggles to make it through the Depression, their love only seems to grow stronger. Crowe does a brilliant job of portraying Braddock's skill in the ring and his love and devotion to his family, while struggling to deal with all of the hard moments in his life. It is a great performance.
Paul Giamatti ("Sideways", "American Splendor") shows once again why he is one of the best actors working in film. His character, Joe Gould, has many different and complicated layers. He seems entirely devoted to Braddock and in other scenes there is something working under the surface that we don't quite understand. When we finally realize what this element is, it comes as a big surprise, adding yet another layer of depth to the character. Giamatti's character is complex and believable, an accomplishment for a supporting character.
Howard always does a great job of finding great actors to fill the supporting roles, which makes his films that much stronger. In "Cinderella Man", he rounds out the cast with Craig Bierko as Max Baer, Paddy Considine ("In America") as Braddock's friend Mike Wilson, and Bruce McGill as Jimmy Johnston, the head of the Boxing League. Bierko, in particular, stands out. A veteran of many television shows, Bierko brings Baer to life. Baer was the Heavyweight Champion and a ladies man. He was a vicious fighter, killing two men in the ring. The first time we see Baer, he is in the middle of the fight and almost snorting steam out of his nostrils, like a bull, ready to fight. He knows he has to win fights to maintain his lavish lifestyle, a lifestyle that he loves and craves. Bierko does a great job of bringing the fighter to life. The performance is all the more unusual because we have never seen anything of this level from him before.
Earlier, I mentioned that the film was `near great'. Howard creates films with an attention to detail that is very high. He makes us believe that we are watching astronauts in a spaceship or a brilliant but confused person walking through Princeton. The boxing matches benefit greatly from Howard's high level of attention to detail. During these matches, my friend seemed to feel every punch. She was saying things like "Ow", "Oh God!", and "Ouch" with almost every punch, especially during the climatic fight between Braddock and Max Baer. This is a good example of how real these matches seem. And yet another reason Howard's films are so accomplished and enjoyable.
One thing that you can always count on is that Howard will amass a cast of highly skilled actors who will own their respective roles. In "Cinderella Man", this is accomplished with one minor exception. Renee Zellweger. Zellweger is a good actress, creating some memorable characters, and she is quite good as Mae, but she isn't as good as Crowe. In their scenes together, Zellweger portrays one emotion, one feeling, one look, while Crowe's face is revealing so many different things about Braddock. It is amazing to watch the difference. Crowe is doing a brilliant job of creating his character while Zellweger is doing a good job. It makes the relationship seem off-balance and robs the film of greatness.
"Cinderella Man" is a near great film about a real person who stirred the passions of America at a time when they needed a hero.