As the film opens, Jim Braddock is a successful boxer, providing a good life for his wife Mae (played by Renee Zellweger) and their three young children. Then Braddock breaks a hand and is beaten so badly in his subsequent fights that his license to box is revoked and he is forced into abject poverty in the early days of the Depression. He ends up looking for work as a daily stevedore on the Hoboken docks where he finds a friend in co-worker Mike (Paddy Considine), a former Wall Street stockbroker who has turned to trades unionism, one of the few fictional characters in the film and one whose dramatic arc serves as an explicit comment on the politics of the times, with a resonance for today’s America, where the call has again gone out that a headless government has failed their people.
The Braddock’s helpless poverty means Jim has little time to develop a radical politics; he’s too busy trying to find enough for them to eat, although the square-jawed Considine does very well in his few scenes. Braddock’s wife Mae would prefer he quit boxing, but knows how badly they need the money to get by with their three kids. They cannot pay bills, or feed their children with Howard showing the depth of the family’s collapse in a heart-breaking scene where Braddock passes a hat around a roomful of his former peers, looking for donations. With nothing left to lose, when Braddock is given hope of a comeback and the media pick up his story, he becomes the inspiration, a last beacon of hope for Americans who had forgotten hope existed. Through the tribulation, Braddock gets his chance at a fighting comeback, as his tender-hearted, and similarly broke manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) pushes him past the sneering boxing commission, who think he’s a broken washout, and towards a shot at the title. Without enough time to train, or the nutrition to rebuild his strength, Braddock takes on the heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a monster who has already killed two of his opponents and seems likely to put a halt to his outsized, outclassed and out of luck opponent’s return to the top.
Sounds slushy, doesn’t it? Thankfully, a tougher, more sober Howard and his regular scenarist Akiva Goldsman have reined in their tendency to pile on the schmaltz in delivering a beautifully developed story about pride and determination that provides the perfect platform for a career-defining performance from a beefed-up Crowe, with exceptional support from Zellwegger as the long-suffering wife and Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s manager and friend, Joe Gould. Both are revelatory, with Giamatti in particular delivering another note-perfect performance, but the film belongs to Crowe, who shows his mettle in the ring and his courage in the face of economic adversity. In making an explicit connection between Braddock's wavering career trajectory and disintegrating family life and America’s Great Depression and the rise of the trade union movement, the film sounds a depth that approaches the operatic majesty of Raging Bull and at all time feels real and never forced. Rather than try to punch above their weight, Howard and Crowe don’t attempt to ape the long tradition of brutal boxing films, although their film is both fierce and violent. What they have done is give their sports movie a convincing and affecting emotional core that might occasionally teeter on the edge of sentimentality but never falls into soppiness. The many fights are consistently finely paced and beautifully choreographed. Although fight fans are hardly short on cinematic pugilists, Cinderella Man doesn’t abandon its duty to provide some teeth-rattling fight scenes, with the ultimate fight providing some genuine tension and thrills. Crowe, unsurprisingly a convincing bruiser, proves again his ability to give great humanity and heart to what is a classically drawn one-note cinema hero, his eyes full of sadness and his pain altogether palpable. Cinderella Man is a rousing, heartbreaking film that inexplicably failed on its release in the US but fully deserves it’s more discerning autumn audience here.