Cinderella Man

“Cinderella Man” begins with a quote from author Damon Runyon: “In all the history of the boxing game, you’ll find no human interest story to compare with the life narrative of James J. Braddock.” The inclusion of this statement is a bold move, perhaps the boldest thing that Ron Howard has ever done in a film. So we’re about to watch an incomparable human interest story, are we? Well, I’ll be the judge of that, thank you.

Turns out it’s not all that Runyon made it out to be, or at least Howard’s telling of it doesn’t measure up. Oh sure, it’s a good movie, but only by process of elimination: You like it because there’s no reason NOT to like it.

It is the true account of Jim Braddock, a Depression-era boxer who inspired a weary nation with his breadlines-to-headlines underdog story. Russell Crowe plays Braddock, a New Jersey heavyweight who peaked in the 1920s and now, in the throes of the Depression, has enough trouble finding a day’s work on the docks, let alone a bout in the ring. His weak left punch was causing a downturn in his career even before the stock market crashed; now he’s almost utterly without prospects.

Jim has broken his right hand more than once and now, adding insult to injury, the boxing commission has revoked his license. The reason cited is his increasingly erratic and non-entertaining fighting style, which involves a lot of staggering around and hugging his opponent. No one wants to pay to see that.

He remains cautiously optimistic, though, quietly and doggedly caring for his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and their three young children. He promises one son that no matter how bad things get, they’ll never send the kids away to live with relatives, the way other hard-hit families are doing nowadays. Of course, the very fact that the movie takes time to show him making this promise is all the proof you need that he will eventually break it, or that his desire not to break it will become a central issue.

His shot at redemption comes when he is scheduled as a last-minute replacement in a Madison Square Garden fight. It’s a one-time-only thing — the commission will allow him to fight without a license just this once, and he’s expected to lose anyway — but he gets $250 either way. As he tells his manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), “for $250 I’d fight your wife.”

Miraculously, he wins the bout, and soon Joe is pleading with commissioner Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) to let Jim continue fighting, to be granted the title shots that his vanquished opponent would have gotten if he had won. Seeing dollar signs before his eyes — a phoenix from the ashes! A hero for the working class! — Johnston relents. Jim is on his way to a comeback.

Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay takes us through the expected rises and falls, culminating in a fight against Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a rich, arrogant jerk (of course) who has killed two opponents in previous bouts. Mae has heretofore been supportive of her husband, never attending the bloody matches herself but always eager to hear of Jim’s victories. But now she can’t stomach the idea any longer, nor does she want her children growing up to be pugilists. The Baer match-up may be a turning point for her and Jim. If nothing else, it affords them the opportunity to make impassioned speeches that are easily excerpted at awards shows.

Though many films are set during the Depression, “Cinderella Man” is actually very much ABOUT it, almost making the grimy, hopeless era a character in its own right. We get a strong sense of the frustration and desperation of early-1930s families, of strong men willing to work but unable to find any, of mothers forgoing dinner so their children can eat, of alcohol providing temporary escape for whoever can afford it.

Crowe and Zellweger are both fine, reminding me yet again that as much as I may dislike them in real life — his rowdiness, her phony aw-shucks-iness — they can sure act when they want to. And Giamatti is always a welcome spice in a bland movie.

Howard has made a perfectly competent and reliable film, but an artless one. It is nothing more or less than conventional Oscar-bait, full of dramatic speeches and reversals of fortune, a generically inspiring tale of One Man Fighting Against The Odds to Rise Up and Define A Generation, and all those other things that the guy in the movie trailers always says. It neither satisfies nor disappoints — which, to me, is a bit of a disappointment in itself.

B- (2 hrs., 18 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, some vulgarity, the usual boxing-related violence (nothing awfully graphic).)