Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man< /i> is not an example of flashy filmmaking, but it does the job.
Thursday, June 2, 2005
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 is 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.
CINDERELLA MAN ( * * * )
Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti.
(PG-13, 144 mins.) At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Northridge Cinemas, Century Park Seven.
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.
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.
It certainly helps that Howard has his A Beautiful Mind star Crowe 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 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 rewritten 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.
But comparing Ron Howard to the geniuses of his art form isn’t entirely fair, not when 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.