Title: Cinderella Man
Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Play time: 2h 24min
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman
Starring: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Craig Bierko
Cinderella Man – Oscar – Baiting Movie
What did I do to deserve Akiva Goldsman? I rarely resort to insulting specific people when writing about film, mostly because I believe that my opinion aside, it usually takes considerable talent to make it in this industry, but Goldsman is so successful and so insidious that I will make an exception. A few years ago, the man was harmless, writing awful but thoroughly dispensable screenplays for throwaway genre flicks like Lost in Space and Batman & Robin. In 2001, however, he teamed up with Ron Howard and graduated to the Hollywood “prestige picture,” winning an Oscar for penning A Beautiful Mind, the tolerable but simplistic and hideously overrated John Nash biopic.
Four years later, Goldsman and Howard are together again, presenting yet another Russell Crowe period piece. If A Beautiful Mind was bad, Cinderella Man is worse! Maudlin, entirely conventional, and lacking even an ounce of insight or nuance, it is “Oscar-bait” filmmaking at its very worst, working to be as bland and inoffensive as possible every step of the way. There is nothing to discover and nothing to feel; every development is a foregone conclusion and every character is precisely who you would expect him or her to be from the plot synopsis.
Goldsman ‘Lack of filling in the Details’ in Cinderella Man
Understand me. I am not objecting to convention, or even formula. I am, in fact, the biggest proponent of formula you are likely to find outside of a studio marketing department conference room. But to effectively employ a formula, one has to do precisely that — employ it; build on it and around it. Goldsman merely fills in the blanks. There isn’t a single line of dialogue in Cinderella Man that bears any mark of distinction, aside from a few that are particularly asinine (“You’re the champion of my heart” comes to mind). The characters don’t say or do anything that would distinguish them as real human beings, with feelings and problems and a life outside of what the script demands. Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe), our hero, is a brave and persistent guy, yes, and his wife (Renee Zellweger) is admirably loyal and steadfast, but there is nothing beyond these vague descriptors. They don’t have a single quirk or — needless to say — a personality.
This obviousness extends beyond the characterizations and to plotting. Cinderella Man is the kind of movie that will supplement the sight of dozens of men shoved up against the gates of the docks, desperate to be picked to work that day (the foreman, meanwhile, is yelling “I need five men, and only five!”) with a shot of a newspaper headline proclaiming “Unemployment Reaches 15,000,000!” Ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt are not allowed, of course; that’s not necessarily a problem if the film has some sort of forceful stance a la Kingdom of Heaven, but Cinderella Man is little more than an inspirational underdog story muddle, a Seabiscuit with a boxer instead of a racehorse.
That brings us to the boxing proper, which is where Ron Howard gets to extricate himself at least partially from Goldsman’s destructive influence. Howard is a talented, if staunchly conventional filmmaker, and the respectable genre flicks he used to make back in the 90’s (his career has actually paralleled Goldsman’s somewhat, though with a higher quality quotient) attest to his ability to engage the audience in a straightforward storyline. The fight scenes manage to generate excitement, if not suspense (the screenplay precludes the latter by making the outcome of each bout a foregone conclusion), and, in the end, give the movie the faintest pulse. They also have the effect of making us wish that Howard would go back to the likes of Ransom, Backdraft. Before he discovered Oscar, he was a director to watch.
Crowe & Zellweger Weak Representation
Everyone has his cinematic pet peeves or eight, and one of my biggest is this reasonably new genre of expensive, pedigreed, boring would-be crowd-pleasers. Cinderella Man neuters everything, from Howard’s visual sense to the considerable skills of Crowe and Zellweger, who struggle mightily to make something out of nothing, to even composer Thomas Newman, who apparently was hired and then forced to do his best imitation of James Horner. It dares not do anything that would set it apart or make it stick in the memory (with the possible exception of one unexpectedly effective scene in which the indigent Braddock infiltrates an old upscale hangout, hat in hand).
Goldsman, Howard and producer Brian Grazer seem to think that the way to an audience’s heart is through novocaine. I hope so very fervently that they are wrong.