Review by Mark Walters


When I was a kid I used to watch reruns of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW all the time.  Who would have ever imagined that little Opie Taylor would grow up to become one of the most impressive directors in Hollywood?  I think I can safely say I have never seen a Ron Howard film I didn't like.  Regardless of whether it's comedy, drama, or action, the man knows how to tell a story and captivate us.  Plus he has a visual style that is constantly growing and changing with every film.  In 2001 Howard released A BEAUTIFUL MIND, based on a true story, and starring Russell Crowe.  The film took home four Oscars, including Best Director.  Now Crowe and Howard have teamed up once again telling yet another true story.  So can they possibly outdo their previous effort?


CINDERELLA MAN is the story of James Braddock.  Jim was a boxer, and a good one at that.  His trainer Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) had led him into a good career, which included a a record of no knockouts.  In 1928 he had it all.  The fame, the money, and the posh living came easy... until the Great Depression hit.  In just a few years Braddock hit the bottom with so many others.  The money was gone, as was the nice house, and Braddock even got his boxing license taken away due to a bad hand.  Jim and his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) were barely making it, and trying very hard to keep their family together.  James would give his meager meal portions to his hungry children.  Mae would add water to the milk bottles to make them last just a bit longer.  As bad as things were, they were getting worse by the day.  Then Jim got a break.  Joe Gould showed up with an opportunity.  Braddock was going to fight again, but under one condition.  He had to take a fall.  It was a one time chance to make some decent money, and might even help Braddock get caught up for a change.  But once he hit the ring, something amazing happened.  Jim made a comeback.  It was as if the time away from the fights has made him a different man.  Suddenly the boxer everyone counted out was back in a big way.  But the most unexpected thing was that this man everyone had forgotten about had now became a hero to the people in his community.  His comeback gave them hope.  Jim wasn't fighting to make money anymore.  He was fighting to save his family, and he was giving men like him some incredible inspiration.  The question then became how far could he go before it all ended.

This film is one of those stories that just grabs you and won't let go.  There aren't many movies that accurately depict the hardships people experienced during those times.  This one shows it brilliantly.  When Jim goes through rough times, it's truly heartwrenching.  There's one scene where he goes to the wealthy men of the boxing commission and begs for spare change.  It's a painful moment for him, and we can't help but feel his pain.  Like those who lived around him, we want Jim to succeed.  Russell Crowe is again amazing with his performance.  The guy hits the bullseye with every line.  He plays Braddock with quietly layered intensity.  It's just so impressive, because characters like this can easily fail in the hands of the wrong actor.  Crowe nails it, which isn't surprising considering his proven talent, but it's still incredible to watch.  I can honestly say I'm not a big fan of Renée Zellweger, and never really have been.  I just never saw what everyone else did in her.  She is good though in this film.  Perhaps there were other actresses who could've played this part, but Zellweger does it nicely.  Her role as Mae is that of a frustrated woman, who cares deeply about her husband's wellbeing.  She also manages to capture the essence of a woman from that time and those circumstances.  Paul Giamatti is superb as Joe Gould.  This guy was totally robbed this year at the Academy Awards.  The fact he didn't at least receive a nomination for his performance in SIDEWAYS was a crime.  I have a good feeling that the Oscars will have no choice but to excessively praise him for this film.  Giamatti does a lot with this character, and in many ways steals the show.  His interaction with Crowe is pure greatness.  I predict an easy Oscar, which to be quite honest is overdue.  The supporting performances are great too, particularly with Craig Bierko as the imposing champion boxer Max Baer.  The guy supposedly killed men in the ring, and never showed remorse for his actions.  Bierko oozes belligerent evil in this role.  Here's an actor I've always enjoyed watching, and often times can be very humorous when he wants to.  But here he is so frightening, and perfectly plays the opposite of every good quality exhibited by Braddock.  Every film about a good guy can only work well if it has a good villain.  Craig is just that.

Ron Howard continues to blow us away with his direction.  The style of this film is bleak and depressing, but it works very well with the story.  What Howard does here is take us down with Braddock, and build us up when things start going good again.  It's a journey, one that we take with these characters, and it sucks us in exactly as is should.  One repeated effect that I really enjoyed was the way Howard handled the boxing scenes.  Ron has always been good with his visuals, and manages to do unique things here as well.  During the boxing scenes, certain punches are followed by momentary freeze frames and camera flash sounds.  It takes us into the fight in a new and different way, like watching it through the eyes of a photographer.  Every hit is as intense as it would be if we were actually there.  This is why Ron Howard is a great director.  The guy knows how to reinvent genres, and do things in new and interesting ways.  Sure we've seen the rags to riches stories before, and there have been many sports films that build up to moments of glory, but Howard still manages to put a new twist on the film's storytelling.  Best Director?  You better believe it.  This guy deserves that award by default.  He is easily one of the best directors working in Hollywood today.  I also want to commend the use of Thomas Newman for composing the score.  Newman's scores are always emotional, and seem to work particularly well with period pieces.  This film is no exception.

CINDERELLA MAN is an excellent film.  It's one of those stories that just astounds us.  The combination of Howard behind the camera and this talented cast makes for a terrific experience.  I've thought long and hard about whether or not I could find any flaws with it, but I really enjoyed what I saw.  I'll go ahead and predict Oscars all around, as they would certainly be well-deserved.  Sometimes inspirational films can become trite and boring, or just plain repetitive.  CINDERELLA MAN thankfully never falls into that trap.  You can't help but be impressed with this tale, if for no other reason than it makes us realize how good we've had it.  Jim Braddock was an amazing man, and this film does a fine job of showing why. score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, I give CINDERELLA MAN a 10.

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