Cinderella Man is the true story of James Braddock (Russell Crowe). As the picture opens in 1928, Braddock is an unusual prize fighter. He's a highly ranked contender in line for a championship bout, but he outfits himself with none of the glitz we normally associate with his profession -- no nightclubs, no blondes draped in fur. Rather, he's a traditional family man with a devoted wife and three small children. They enjoy a modest middle-class lifestyle in a leafy New Jersey suburb sustained by Jim's $8,000-$10,000 per fight. To provide for the future, Jim has invested in the booming stock market and owns a small cab company.
Fast-forward five years. Jim is still fighting, but his purses are now $50. The suburban house and everything in it are gone. The stock market crash has taken all Jim's investments and the family of five is squeezed into a one-room basement apartment in a squalid slum. Jim tries to supplement his boxing income by doing day labor on the docks, but the family is barely surviving. Then Jim breaks his right hand for the third time and loses his boxing license. The wolf at the door crosses the threshold. Jim can't pay for utilities. Mae Braddock (Rene Zellweger) takes to stretching her children's milk with tap water.
This desperate Great Depression situation spawns the movie's two most memorable scenes, neither of which involves boxing at all. First, Jim stands in line to apply for public assistance. Second and more powerfully, Jim approaches a club of fight promoters still smoking expensive cigars and checking the time on jeweled watches. Hat in hand, he asks them for a handout, for a spare bill, for loose change in their pockets. A lesser actor than Russell Crowe would have played this as a scene of humiliation. Jim used to put money in these men's pockets; now he's reduced to begging from them. But it's Crowe's brilliant take on Jim that he's a realist never too proud to do what's necessary to provide for his family -- to fight, to labor, to stand in line or to beg. These are required things. And Jim does them without sacrificing a single shred of his dignity.
Then, Lady Luck's scowl turns once again into a smile. Jim's long-time agent Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) gets Jim's boxing license back. And with his left hand strengthened by dock work, Jim is quickly back on his way to a title fight against reigning heavyweight champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). The formula kicks in, and the character homework done, we root like crazy for a triumph in the ring for a man who's already won a championship in human decency.
Involving and stirring as this is, Cinderella Man is less than it might have been. I craved some background information about what drove a man like Jim Braddock into such a brutal profession in the first place. He seems far more like a pharmacist or shoemaker than like a boxer. I am aware that Max Baer was considered a showoff, but he was also well-liked and suffered noticeably after fatally injuring an opponent in the ring. Thus, the decision to make him a despicable villain seems unnecessary and unfair. I don't know for certain that Mae never threw a drink in Baer's face, but as rendered, the scene is unconvincing and seems gratuitous. And I regret that the immensely talented Zellweger is reduced to the same sideliner's role Howard gave the worrying wives in Apollo 13. Also, in a world riven by religious differences, I wish Howard had left out the scenes of priests and Catholic parishioners praying for Jim's victory.
Still, there's great acting by Crowe and Giamatti in this film. The portrait of the Depression is a chilling reminder for our age about the depths to which people can be plunged through no fault of their own. And the Jim Braddock story is one that gives you hope for the human animal. Only the most jaded filmgoer will leave the theater without wanting to cheer.