The title Cinderella Man was originally coined by classic New York journalist Damon Runyan, who is cited at the film's start as calling James Braddock the ultimate human interest story. Which is perfect for Ron Howard, one of the greatest human interest film directors of our time. He's re-teamed with his Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind crew of producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and actor Russell Crowe to bring this historical sports fairy tale to life.
The story of Jim Braddock is at heart similar to that of Seabiscuit, though the boxer was already a phenomenon before the horse. It begins in 1928 with Braddock well on his way as an undefeated light-heavyweight boxer. All seems well for the so-called "Bulldog of Bergen" with his rising career, his loving wife Mae (René e Zellweger, Oscar winner for Cold Mountain), their young children, and a nice house across the river in New Jersey.
But as any student of American history can tell you, hard times hit most everyone soon after because of The Great Depression. Not that boxing lost its popularity during that period, but money became tighter for the Braddocks, partly because of some bad investments. The boxing great also fell into a string of losses, eventually breaking his hand in a match and decommissioned from the sport as a result. Suddenly, Braddock has no way to provide for his young family, and work is scarce—especially for a laborer with a hand injury. Poverty threatens to tear his family apart, but rather than send the kids away to stay with his sister-in-law, he's committed to keeping his loved ones together at all costs.
Time passes and things don't become easier, but then Braddock's manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) drops by with an opportunity he can't pass up: a chance to stand-in for the opener to the 1934 heavyweight match at Madison Square Garden. The idea was to collect some fast money for Braddock's family while going out in a blaze of glory boxing bout. Things work out differently, leading to one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history and inspiring hope among a hopeless generation.
Let me qualify praise for Cinderella Man by saying that the film's greatest weakness is that it's somewhat conventional, much like 2004's biopics Ray and Finding Neverland. The boxing arc leads to the inevitable climactic match—a "Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral" showdown against the imposing Max Baer (Craig Bierko, The Long Kiss Goodnight). There's the concerned wife who doesn't want to lose her husband to the perils of his sport, and the manager who morally wrestles with the success and the well being of his star and friend.
Yet truth is often stronger and stranger than fiction, and it's the mark of a well-made film when you know almost exactly where it's going, yet still find it suspenseful and engaging despite that. Cinderella Man succeeds not because of originality, but with excellence in filmmaking.
Technically speaking, this may be the best film I've seen about boxing. A classic with a lot of heart, Rocky's melodrama hasn't aged well with time, and both Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby are ultimately more focused on character study than sport. Cinderella Man also loves its characters, but it also builds some respect for the skills of boxing. Brutal as it is, the pugilistic strategies and techniques are on blow-by-blow display here. Howard's intuitive storytelling through point-of-view camerawork places the viewer in the ring to help understand the fighters both physically and mentally. I found nearly every second of every match riveting, not simply learning whether or not Braddock wins the match, but also how.