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Cinderella Man
by Christopher Campbell

Audiences get the expected with Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, a crowd-pleasing by-the-books tale of the American Dream.  Even that opening sentence is a convention for reviewing such filmmaking.  The director, delivering his usual flat, acceptably indifferent storytelling, has never been worth more discussion.  Still, his movies are never a complete bore.

This against-the-odds triumph presents for your consideration James Braddock, an ace boxer in the 1920s who began losing around the start of the Great Depression only to be given a second chance for an inspiring comeback midway through that hapless era.  Plot-wise, Cinderella Man is the first four installments of Rocky, condensed yet complete with rags to riches, a rematch and a climactic bout with a champ prone to manslaughter.  The only thing missing is a training montage.

Before Braddock's life and biopic gain momentum, however, Cinderella Man 's first act drags through the requisites of the times:  overdue notices, kids hungering, kids stealing, kids getting sick, unemployed dockworkers, families falling apart and eventually shamed into begging and collecting relief aid.  Russell Crowe plays the fighter effortlessly humble, a retread of his sad-eyed, aw-shucks John Nash from Howard's A Beautiful Mind only without the mad confusion; his innocent stare, in the context of Braddock, very differently equates virtue and serenity, as if he could have made it through the decade contently without the career rebound.  A distracting and deficient subplot featuring Paddy Considine as Braddock's buddy from the docks serves only to cynically contrast the hero's attitudes as if the extremes of Braddock's flawless character need heightening.

James Braddock's optimism isn't what gets him ahead, however, and like most stories mistaken for exhibiting the American Dream, Rocky included, Cinderella Man could not happen without opportune luck.  Even with chance falling into place, it is then the work of Braddock's manager Joe Gould that seems to carry the load, off screen unfortunately.  Paul Giamatti as Gould does an outstanding job keeping the story buoyant; he does the fancy footwork while Crowe displays the muscle and here the dance is more entertaining than the punch.  If only more of Gould's interactions with the promoters and commission could have been added in.  They could take the place of any scene in which Renee Zellweger, as Braddock's wife Mae, offers her best Adrian Balboa without the ability to look as disapproving thanks to her frown-less brow.

The problem with Cinderella Man is similar to most of Howard's films.  It doesn't show anything new and doesn't say anything at all.  Steering clear of politics, statements and even a defined antagonist make for very straightforward, mindless entertainment.   Cinderella Man is no different than any other summer fluff despite its lack of special effects or its period placement.  Zellweger even gets to speak some dialogue comparable to Natalie Portman's cheesy lines in Star Wars .   On a brighter note, I guarantee you that nothing getting blown up this season will be more explosive than Paul Giamatti.

©2005 Christopher Campbell
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