CINDERELLA MAN directed by Ron Howard, with Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger and Paul Giamatti. A Universal Pictures release. 144 minutes. Opens Friday (June 3). For venues and times, see Movies, page 175. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
I always enjoy seeing Ron Howard at the Oscars. He's the only middle-aged guy there whose bald head has nothing to do with fashion. What you see is what you get. He's Hollywood's company man, delivering the goods with no neuroses and a minimum of fuss. I imagine he's a balanced, nice guy with excellent people skills. He'll never get arrested for DUI.
Too bad his films contain so few surprises.
Howard's best at coming-through-hardship films. Even when we know the outcome is positive - that the Apollo 13 astronauts will live, that the schizophrenic math prof with a beautiful mind will get a Nobel Prize - he keeps us watching through good old-fashioned storytelling.
Cinderella Man gives us more of the same. Russell Crowe plays real-life prizefighter Jim Braddock, an aging has-been who's struggling to support his family during the Depression when he suddenly gets a shot at a comeback.
As Braddock - nicknamed the Bulldog for his tenacious fighting style and his record of never getting knocked out - takes on increasingly frightening heavyweight contenders, he becomes a symbol for America's downtrodden. If he can pick himself up again, then so can the country.
Howard takes his time establishing the era and the characters, which partly explains the long running time. Braddock bonds with his kids, teaching them responsible life lessons, marching his son back to the butcher's when he steals a salami. His wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), stands by her man even when they're practically starving. (At one point I wondered if Zellweger, her hair tightly curled as it was in Chicago, was going to go find work in a nightclub.) Braddock's manager, Joe (Paul Giamatti), looks concerned when he sees the boxer reduced to begging to get his kids back.
But the film mostly focuses on the sad-eyed Crowe exhibiting grace under pressure. Few actors today could communicate his everyman pride while standing in line for a welfare cheque or slogging it out at the docks between fights, an occupation that helps his left hook when he re-enters the ring. Zellweger, whose eye-twitching, mouth-pursing acting has become mannered, redeems her performance in a moving scene near the end.
Howard knows that we've all seen way too many boxing movies, so he shoots his fight scenes energetically and never repeats himself - or others. These aren't Raging Bull's mythopoeic showdowns.
There's good use of sound, and the editing is sharp. The workmanlike script builds up to the big fight; we care about the outcome because we care about the characters, including Braddock's flamboyant opponent, Max Baer (Craig Bierko).
Toronto's alleys and dusty courtyards stand in quite well for the New York area. It was almost - almost - worth losing Richmond between Yonge and Bay for months last year to see the Hudson Bay building turned into Madison Square Gardens.