Cinderella Man (2005)
Make no mistake about it, Ron Howard likes to cuddle his characters. He's there for them on a rainy day, and he's the first to welcome them as they cross the finish line after a long steeplechase. Four years ago, he made his most celebrated film to date, portraying - by means of Russell Crowe - the life of brilliant but also haunted mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. That film pulled all the right strings at the right time, and with Cinderella Man Howard tries to pull the same trick all over again - with Crowe back at his side.
The difference between the two films are largely in tone and nature. A Beautiful Mind was a darker, more intricate film dealing with mental illness in a cerebral environment. Cinderella Man concerns the sport of boxing backdropped against the great depression of the 30s. It's not at all cerebral or dark in nature (despite the social problems illustrated), but as with Howard's 2001 Oscar-winner, Cinderella Man depicts strength of character, the importance of family life and the rise of an underdog. Sounds customary American? Oh yes, but then again the once all-American boy-next-door, Ron Howard is behind the wheel.
There's nothing new to Cinderella Man in terms of either themes, style or narrative structure. This film works as an antique, well-oiled, ornamental clock. It has the 'based on a true story' stamp (albeit not explicitly) and the spirit of classic Hollywood filmmaking. One could argue that there's probably no need for another boxing movie, but there's always a need for strong, biographical pictures, and in the character of Jim Braddock the film is able to examine a profound goodness that is so rare in modern cinema (or society) that we feel we haven't seen it since Jimmy Stewart's heyday. One would think that depicting such a character could come off feeling phony, but the thoroughness, dedication and narrative quality off this film makes him quite the opposite.
There's something deeply primal in the nature of boxing, and set against a time of depression, this nature is chiseled out to a very distinct effect here. It goes to show that if the story is good enough, the classic tale of the American dream can still be highly effective. Cinderella Man confidently strolls its way from sentimental passages through well-depicted, bloody boxing sequences and commands the viewer along for the ride. Making use of Crowe's wholehearted lead and with Paul Giamatti as a very important carrier of joint emphatiziser and technical supervisor (another commanding performance that finally gave him the deserved Oscar-nomination), Ron Howard concludes his shamelessly old-fashioned film with a brilliantly directed finale containing some of the best sports sequences in film ever. For once, Thomas Newman's score (which is overly sentimental) undermines a film instead of fortifying it, but that's about the only setback this film encounters.