Let's be brief: "Cinderella Man" is "Seabiscuit" on two legs instead of four. Director Ron Howard, who manages to turn every worthwhile story into tear-jerking schlock (think "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," and "Missing") has done it again with the story of James J. Braddock, the fighter from North Bergen, New Jersey, who was briefly a contender, in 1928; then a nobody with a broken hand and a family crammed into a basement hovel, and then - given a second chance - became, for one brief year, the world heavyweight champion at a time when the title meant something.
Somehow Howard and his writers, Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, have taken the powerful, moving story of an ordinary man with one talent - a story that has all the resonance and the larger implications one could wish for - the early success, the crushing weight of the Great Depression, the chance at renewal and the regaining of life once again - and somehow managed to demean it all by bathing it in sentimentality. Can someone please get Mr. Howard a new line of work?
I don't want to demean his actors. Russell Crowe's performance could be compared to that of Robert De Niro's in "Raging Bull" if only he had more of a script to work with. He is generous and believable as that simple yet talented man. Renee Zellweger, as his long-suffering wife, must put up with lines that in other hands would make us squirm in our seats; she almost makes them work.
I was particularly offended by Howard's treatment of the Depression and its effect on Braddock. The fighter lost everything in the stock market crash and was reduced to looking desperately for occasional work on the docks. His best friend, trying to unite the men living in a Hooverville in Central Park, is killed by the cops. But is Howard willing to assign blame, or responsibility, or even give a nod toward any force beyond Braddock's own control? Not in this film. And then, in a piece of stupidity that we're supposed to admire, when Jimmy finally gets a bit of money from a fight, he stands in line at the relief office to return the welfare money he got from them. Didn't somebody tell him it was his own taxes that paid for it? And why does the family continue to live in that basement hovel - a space right out of "Angela's Ashes" - even after Braddock is making good money again?
But let me not condemn the whole film. The fights are very well staged. Crowe looks great as a boxer. And there is one brilliant, unexpected moment. At the height of the Depression, after everything has been sold off, Zellweger goes to Jim's manager's apartment in a fancy building - the manager, Joe Gould, is played by Paul Giamatti in what to me is an unattractive, self-conscious manner - to borrow money from this supposedly rich man. She knocks and knocks at the door but he won't open it to her. And then he does, and she sees - he's as poor as she. He's sold off everything he owns as well. It's a great moment. But for me it was one of a very few in the film.