Ever so often, you run across a cinematic experience that leaves you exhausted. It's a good kind of exhaustion...it's the kind of exhaustion you experience when you've had such a complete sensory experience in a two hour period that your body is tense, your eyes are moist and your left holding the sides of your theater chair completely paralyzed and unable to stop experiencing the film you've just witnessed. You've laughed...you've cried...you've been chilled to the bone by the film and its story and its characters.
"Cinderella Man" is such a film.
The story of depression-era fighter James J. Braddock, "Cinderella Man" is the latest film directed by Ron Howard and stars Russell Crowe (as Braddock), Renee Zellweger (as his wife Mae), Paul Giamatti (as his longtime manager) and a host of others in smaller, yet remarkably well cast roles.
I'd pretty much lost faith in Howard after the horrid Grinch fiasco, however, in his bid to become known as a grittier director he's shown remarkable directorial growth in this film with a straightforward yet remarkably powerful cinematic experience. I was a tad worried in the first 15-20 minutes of the film...the pacing was a bit slow and camera work was just a touch shaky. It created a bit of concern about the fight scenes. Yet, this seemed to be a temporary issue and, as the film progressed, actually seemed to be a natural way for the film to start. The film gradually picked up pace...allowing for a slow buy in emotionally with the characters. In many ways, Howard avoids a lot of cinematic tricks and fancy camera work and allows the story to tell itself. In other words, he trusts the story and the actors to do their jobs. The result is a film that is beautifully paced because Howard pulls us into the relationships in the film and intersperses it with wonderful boxing action.
Russell Crowe is simply magnificent as Braddock, a real life depression era boxer who became a hero to the common man during this era as a man who got a second chance and made the most of it. Braddock, who was known as a "Gentleman," has an inspiring story and Crowe brings a deep humanity to the character...a man who is proud, but humble...devoted, but determined. Watching Crowe with his onscreen family (Zellweger and three children) was reminiscent of Paddy Considine's scenes from "In America." Rather ironically, Considine is also in this film as one of Braddock's best friends. Crowe captures beautifully Braddock as a determined, fierce boxer who doesn't get knocked out...while at the same time a powerfully devoted father and husband. Crowe's performance is certainly the first I've seen this year worthy of Oscar consideration.
As his wife, Mae, Renee Zellweger bothered me a bit initially. Because the film is a period piece from the Depression era, the character has touches of her "Chicago" performance in it including hair style and costuming. I'd have preferred more creativity in these areas as I'm sure that anyone who has seen both films won't be able to avoid the comparisons. However, I must stress that this bothered me only initially largely due to the strength of Zellweger's performance. Zellweger is magnificent in radiating a sensitivity that brings to mind Talia Shire's "Rocky" performance...yet also has a powerful strength to it and a stunningly believable loyalty and devotion. This is a borderline Oscar worthy performance, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it receive recognition during year end awards.
Finally, as Braddock's manager Jim Gould, Paul Giamatti offers an Oscar worthy performance for the third year in a row. Will he get the nomination this year as Best Supporting Actor? If not, there needs to be a serious investigation into the nomination process. As Gould, Giamatti gives a daring, bold performance that easily could have drifted into a cartoonish character. The voice he chooses to use here easily brings to mind the period, however, it's also sort of a "radio" voice...he could have easily played it for laughs, but he maintains it beautifully throughout the film and creates a character who, we learn, is always aware of who he is and how he presents himself. Giamatti's Gould is a courageous yet understatedly intimate performance that blends perfectly with Crowe's intimate bravado.
Kudos to the casting team for assembling a stellar supporting cast including Craig Bierko as Max Baer, a world champ who had already killed two men in the ring when he finally fought Braddock, the aforementioned Considine as Braddock's best friend and fellow dock worker Mike Wilson and three exceptional child actors Patrick Louis, Ariel Waller and Connor Price. The film also features several known character actors you may or may not recognize, but all are perfectly cast here.
With the exception of the previously mentioned early camera concerns, the production design here is exceptional including the fight choreography and camera work. With the possible exception of "Raging Bull," the fight sequences are among the best I've witnessed...especially the final fight. Additionally, the depression era set design worked nicely...though, there were times I felt as if Braddock's family was dressed a bit too nicely for a family that ended up losing heat, electric and almost their home.
Thomas Newman's score is a perfect complement to the film, and lighting is particularly effective. There were a bit too many "still/slo mo" shots early on but, once again, this allowed for the action to pace perfectly so, while it bothered me a bit, it was a good choice for the overall film.
"Cinderella Man" is an inspirational story and received recognition at Indy's Heartland Film Festival this past year. (which may explain why Crowe was actually in town today during the Indy 500). The audience applauded loudly at the end of the film, and very few ever left their seats throughout the film. If you've seen "Million Dollar Baby," you've not seen this film. If you've seen the "Rocky" films, then you've still not seen this film. If you've seen "Raging Bull," you've not seen this film. While there are certainly common factors, Ron Howard has crafted an inspiring, beautiful film featuring Oscar worthy performances from Crowe and Giamatti and, possibly, Zellweger.
Sharing lessons about dreams, family, friendship, hope, hard work and faith "Cinderella Man" is 2005's first "must see" film.