Magnum Opie

Salt Lake City Weekly | May 23, 2005
American cinema has its Antonio Salieri, and he is the director of Cinderella Man.

It’s easy to be a fan of Mozart, because it’s easy to embrace universally-accepted brilliance. But nobody is going to claim that the works of Salieri will make your baby smarter. And the odds of Cahiers du Cinema publishing a retrospective on les films du Ron Howard are only slightly better. Yet despite the fact that Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus made Salieri’s name synonymous with mediocrity, the popular and influential composer could count Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert among his pupils. Salieri knew his craft, and he rarely disappointed his audience.

As much as it pains hardcore cinephiles to see “Academy Award-winning director” before his name, the same sentiment could apply to Howard. Like a workhorse of the studio-system era, Howard has tackled fantasy, comedy and drama with a steady professionalism that just doesn’t get the respect it deserves--and don’t think that being identified with Opie and Richie Cunningham doesn’t factor in there.

Cinderella Man adds another unspectacular but solid notch to Howard’s belt as he unspools the biography of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe). A heavyweight boxer with title aspirations in the late 1920s, Braddock hits hard times when a combination of injuries and the Great Depression take him out of the ring, and his family from the New Jersey suburbs to the brink of homelessness. Then, in 1933, underdog Braddock gets an unlikely comeback opportunity--one that could give him a shot at feared champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko)--that rallies the spirits of Americans.

That combination of sports, scrappiness and a Depression-era setting has inspired the smart-alecky shorthand Seaboxer, a reference to 2003 Oscar nominee Seabiscuit. But the superficial similarities don’t recognize how much more accomplished a filmmaker Ron Howard is than Seabiscuit’s Gary Ross, who has never met a symbolic significance he wasn’t prepared to pound into your skull. Howard wisely uses the background simply to build Braddock’s own story, watching his hunger--both literal and metaphorical--drive his tenacity in the ring. There’s contextual stuff here, but not so much that you ever forget the story is about Jim Braddock rather than America Trying to Regain Its Lost Sense of Collective Self-Worth.

It certainly helps that Howard has his A Beautiful Mind star Crowe--an actor who’s never going to slip into the scenery--along as Braddock. This may not be one of Crowe’s flashier performances, but he’s a master at conveying intensity and determination through small gestures and eye movements. He generously allows for plenty of scene-stealing bluster from Sideways’ Paul Giamatti as Braddock’s friend and manager Joe Gould--anyone betting against Giamatti for a make-up supporting actor nomination is a sucker--and Bierko, who gives the film a great villain as the flamboyant Baer.

But the director gets some credit here as well. Like many actors-turned-directors, Howard has a knack for evoking strong performances. Nowhere is this talent better evidenced than in a sharp scene in which Braddock’s wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) visits Gould to accuse him of taking advantage of Jim, only to find his circumstances less posh than he’d let on. Zellweger doesn’t always seem comfortable in what is essentially the “strong yet understanding wife” role, but both she and Giamatti nail this tap-dance of awkwardness.

This is also a boxing movie, so there are more than a few fight sequences. It’s here that the Howard-bashers likely will have their field day, and not without some cause. While Martin Scorsese may have re-written the book on boxing film grammar in Raging Bull, Howard appears to be lifting whole chunks--popping flash bulbs, point-of-view perspectives, disorienting edits. Howard has always been something of a style thief, from the twinkly Spielbergian touches of Cocoon through the John Ford-isms of The Missing, which can often make his films feel like what you settle for when you can’t get the best.

But comparing Ron Howard to the geniuses of his art form isn’t entirely fair, not when so few so few Hollywood directors grasp the simple language of directing a film. His next project is going to be a little something called The Da Vinci Code, and I can’t imagine many other directors whose version of this airport-book potboiler I’d actually look forward to. Cinderella Man is the kind of satisfying, meat-and-potatoes cinema you shouldn’t have to apologize for appreciating--even if it was directed by Opie.

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