*/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko
screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman
directed by Ron Howard
by Walter Chaw Of the many ways that you can read the ending of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, the one I like is the suggestion that the artist will disappear when the masses decide to gratify themselves at the trough of empty spectacles and popular melodramas that do nothing to feed the soul. Ron Howard is at the forefront of greasing that along. Not entirely unexpectedly, his current work in television (he's the producer and narrator of "Arrested Development"), where he got his start, is, at least for the medium, complex and sophisticated. Yet his philosophy for the silver screen seems to have something to do with those three no-evil monkeys: His films have all the edge and subtext of a greeting card. They're handsome, big-budget productions with big, pretty, empty faces, and they're Pollyannaish and generally awful, uniformly, with Splash still the lone bright spot in his career. It is, after all, the only one of his films to feature an ambiguous protagonist and an existentially disquieting conclusion. The only one that acknowledges a possibility for the guys in the white hats to have a shadow as black as coal.
But that's not exactly the problem with Howard's latest tongue bath. In Cinderella Man, he seeks to tell the story of Depression-era boxer James Braddock's (Russell Crowe) rise from rags to riches on the strength of a good right hook and the love of a good woman by dancing from cliché to cliché with a plugger's plodding footwork. Open the lid on the picture and find there's nothing inside it. It's just a beautifully-varnished box, this illuminated fairytale that teaches no lessons, offers no insights, and hangs its hat on its ability to provoke conditioned responses to its well-tested stimuli. Howard's Depression is a grand social experiment that winnows the wheat from society's chaff; cursed with a weak left hook, Braddock begs for work on the docks and, having broken his right hand, needs by necessity of his rough labours to train his left hand! How wonderful for Braddock, and how awful for dockworker buddy Mike (Paddy Considine), who unwisely gets involved in protests at ramshackle Hoovervilles (leaving his wife at home to worry!), leading to his being steamrolled by a runaway metaphor dressed as a horse and buggy.
Mike isn't so much a character as he is a cautionary example for Braddock. Likewise, both Mike's grieving widow (Rosemarie DeWitt) and the ridiculous better half of Braddock's trainer, Joe Gould (I still just don't get Paul Giamatti), serve as examples for Braddock's simpering wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) of how best to be docile, foot-stamping biddies who accidentally undermine their husbands' nobility by wanting to feed and shelter their children. And about those kids? Braddock had two or three--the only one called on to do anything here besides look cute steals a sausage and enables Braddock to have a moment in which he clarifies, again, that that stick up his ass is made of pure, solid gold Americana. The crimes of Cinderella Man mainly have to do with it having absolutely nothing to say about anything of great import; the film is a SATURDAY EVENING POST cover about a man fighting for his life in the squared circle--a subject explored with more depth and feeling in Robert Young's Triumph of the Spirit. Craig Bierko leaves an impression as heavyweight champ Max Baer, whose status as a snarling caricature is embarrassed by his efforts to make something more of Baer than the guy Braddock will inevitably beat up.
Braddock's career really ends with his defeat at the hands of Joe Louis in 1937, but Howard is wired in such a way as to reject the bittersweet, and Cinderella Man, along with Thailand's Beautiful Boxer and Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, is but one in a recent glut of boxing movies that flirt with larger issues without having the grace or wit to follow through on any one of them. Crowe alone emerges from the wreckage with his dignity wholly intact: The thinking man's action hero, Crowe embodies a man torn by the vicissitudes of life and frustrated to an inch of explosion by his inability to provide for his wife and kids. That he does so without any help from Akiva Goldsman's and Cliff Hollingsworth's terminally schmaltzy script and Howard's flat refusal to allow the embedded poetry of Braddock's life to carry the day unadorned by editing, lighting, or scoring tricks only speaks more of Crowe as a force to be reckoned with. Now if he could muster the courage to separate himself from Howard long enough to explore a project that might mean something beyond Zellweger's loose-lipped, kewpie doll mewl that he's the champion of her heart. Crowe deserves better than this--so do you. Originally published: June 3, 2005.
by Bill Chambers Cinderella Man arrives on DVD in competing widescreen, fullscreen, and collectible widescreen editions. For review, we received the standalone widescreen release, a double-sided platter with enough extras to render superfluous the 2-disc Collector's Edition. The 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is predictably handsome, its smooth definition and opaque blacks evoking nothing so much as a velvet painting. Elsewhere on the disc DP Salvatore Totino refers to the film's aesthetic as gritty, but for better or worse, "gritty" is probably the last adjective I would use to describe this presentation. Similarly stellar, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is tight and atmospheric; the Madison Square Garden scenes are genuinely immersive.
As for the remaining audio selections, there's very little difference between director Ron Howard's solo commentary and the "Descriptive Video Service" track for the blind, while screenwriter Akiva Goldsman manages to turn a Jim Braddock hagiography into one for Ron Howard. (Any remotely trenchant insights offered by the pair are recycled ad nauseam in interview segments on the flipside.) The best yakker belongs to original screenwriter Cliff Hollingsworth: Transparently bitter that Hollywood vultures Howard, Goldsman, and Russell Crowe--collectively referred to as "they"--swooped in and snatched his baby, the Elvis soundalike is easily the least disingenuous of the three in discussing the appeal of Braddock's story. Previews for the Extended Edition of Gladiator, "Law & Order"'s DVD line-up, Pride & Prejudice, and Curious George (curious, indeed: the spot is actually promoting the power of Dolby Digital, yet it's not in 5.1!) precede the main menu, finishing off Side A.
A 21-minute block of 7 deleted scenes with optional commentary from Howard opens Side B. Just when you thought Opie missed a cliché or two, along comes a breadline tableau and a "survival montage" with voiceover courtesy of FDR himself. Most of these were "important--but not necessary," says Howard, meaning, I guess, that they helped orient cast and crew but ultimately did little to serve the narrative. The remaining bonus features break down as follows:
"The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man" (22 mins.)
The casting process for a big-budget prestige picture like this boils down to the director composing a wish list. Indeed, with Crowe and Renée Zellweger having called shotgun on the script long before it went into production, Howard and veteran casting director Jane Jenkins played pin the tail on the character actor to fill out the remaining roles. Craig Bierko, the only one playing against type, actually seems to have far more reverence for his real-life counterpart, Max Baer, than the filmmakers do, and I can only wonder if--nay, hope that--The Max Baer Story exists in some alternate universe where Bierko is the box-office draw. Thank goodness Zellweger's platitudes--"It always comes back to their connection," she says of the Braddocks' marriage (she was probably still a couple of minutes away from divorcing Kenny Chesney at that point)--are basically confined to this featurette.
"The Man, the Movie, the Legend: A Filmmaking Journey" (14 mins.)
Here's where Crowe takes all the blame for courting Howard onto the project. It's also the first time we see photographic evidence of the real Mae Braddock, to whom real-life granddaughter Rosemarie DeWitt bears a much closer resemblance than chipmunk-cheeked Zellweger does. Although Howard, who could make Hannibal Lecter sound like Richie Cunningham, sounds glib when he trumpets the period authenticity ("I had always had a deep fascination with the Depression"), the comparable guilelessness of cinematographer Totino is strangely endearing. I do admire that the film didn't lean on the digital crutch to achieve its monochromatic palette.
"For the Record: A History in Boxing" (7 mins.)
Technical supervisor Angelo Dundee gets starstruck just recalling the time he spent training Russell Crowe. (He brags that he was there for the birth of Crowe's child.) The interesting part of the story is the extent to which Howard relied on him--and, by extension, Paul Giamatti--to write dialogue for the fight sequences, thus explaining the blips of verisimilitude throughout the movie.
"Ringside Seats" (9 mins.)
Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, Akiva Goldsman, and...drumroll...Norman Mailer join forces to MST3K vintage footage of Braddock's match with Baer. Note the loud Star of David on Baer's shorts--a detail present but conspicuously obscured in Cinderella Man. At least Mailer is better here than he was on "Gilmore girls".
"Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend" (11 mins.)
Though the family initially made their "dubiousness" known to the filmmakers, surviving son Howard Braddock, along with his grandchildren and DeWitt, implicitly endorse Cinderella Man by their presence on this DVD. Issues that flatline onscreen (such as Mae's hidden-in-plain-sight dislike of Joe Gould) sound like tantalizing biopic fodder as related by Braddock's offspring.
A 2-minute commercial for Kodak and ROM-based weblinks round out the package. Originally published: December 5, 2005.