"You will love 'Cinderella Man!'" Or so blared the incessant media ads early last summer, when Universal put the 'Cinderella Man' marketing campaign into full-tilt swagger mode. But no, America did not love 'Cinderella Man,' and though most critics swooned, the film went quickly down for the count at the box office, barely scrapping past $60 million. For a film that should have been a sure-fire re-teaming of 'A Beautiful Mind' Oscar champions Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe, it was one mean sucker punch indeed.
On paper, the real-life story of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock should have been a 'Rocky' for the new millennium -- his inspiring tale is so perfectly scripted it feels like a piece of well-worn fiction. After achieving great success in the ring in the late 1920s, the Depression swiftly reduced Braddock (Crowe) to a dock worker and left his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and four kids scraping by with barely enough to keep the bills paid and food on the table. After a year out of the ring for over a year, Braddock is finely given one last chance to fight by his ex-manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). To the surprise of the nation, he becomes the ultimate underdog, riding a wave of success that puts him and his family back in the good life. By the time of his climactic fight with Max Baer (Craig Bierko), who had already become legendary for killing two men in the ring, Braddock would become a national hero. In the worst of times, he gave America something to believe in.
I'd say the poor commercial reception that greeted 'Cinderella Man' was unfortunate, if it was not such a calculated film. Howard has always treaded a fine line in his filmmaking between sentiment and schmaltz, and for me, with 'Cinderella Man' he stumbled over to the wrong side. The movie is so precise in its construction it feels manufactured -- all the squalor of the Great Depression is infused with the kind of desaturated movie glow that can only come with a $100 million Hollywood budget, and the actors speak in the kind of grand tongues and big gestures that make you think they were counting Oscars nominations after every take.
The movie also doesn't really work as a boxing drama. The scenes in the ring are almost always played as montage, with the requisite shots of crunchy punches quickly intercut with flashbulbs going off and the crowd cheering -- I almost expected an image of Indiana Jones' bi-plane to be superimposed over the screen at any moment. And oddly, the film's big boxing climax dulls its narrative drive when it should be rousing us to our feet, primarily because Zellweger's otherwise feisty Mae is regulated to the sidelines -- "long suffering" does not do this woman justice. She becomes so symbolic of what Braddock is fighting for instead of integral to the storyline that she ceases to become a character at all. Compare that to the Rocky-Adrian romance in 'Rocky,' where the film earned every tear of its climax because we were so emotionally invested in the relationship between its two characters.
'Cinderella Man' does have some affecting moments. Crowe admirably underplays most of the time -- I especially liked his restraint in the quietly moving scene early in the film, when he must return to his former bosses to beg for a handout. Crowe and Zellweger's relationship also felt real in the first half of the movie, and it's hard not to root for this family to succeed. But best of all is Giamatti, who at long last earned an Oscar nom for the role, and deserved it. He's irascible but likeable, a sort of puppy-dog version of Burgess Meredith in 'Rocky,' and the bond between Gould and Braddock beats as the real heart of the film.
There is a fine line between Oscar worthy and mere Oscar baiting, and I'm still not sure where ultimately 'Cinderella Man' falls (though I wasn't that big a fan of 'A Beautiful Mind' either, and that snagged Best Picture, so what do I know?) Perhaps only time will tell, and 'Cinderella Man' does have an ever-growing legion of fans (look no further than the film's slow ascent up IMDB's Top 250 FIlms of All Time chart for proof). I just ended up admiring its efficiency more than warming up to its emotion. But if you are a fan of Howard's melodramatic style -- and there is no doubt, this film is enjoyable -- you might just love 'Cinderella Man.'
'Cinderella Man's transfer on HD DVD didn't really sock it to me. On the plus side, it does look minted from an expectedly pristine print, with a nice film-like veneer, minimal grain and deep, rich blacks. It is benefits from noticeably more detail than the standard DVD release of last year, with increased depth to the image and more fine details visible.
Yet, 'Cinderella Man' looks surprisingly dark on HD-DVD and lacks strong contrast (though so did the standard DVD). The image just never really pops, with a dullness that fails to match the best transfers I've seen on high-def. The film's color palette is also way skewed towards orange -- Renee Zellweger's face looked like nothing so much as a pumpkin in many scenes -- and if all the color processing gives the movie a suitably angelic glow, it only looks all the more flat because of it. I also hoped the transfer might have been a tad bit sharper, though it is a bit more crisp here than on the standard DVD release. All told, a good-looking disc, but not exemplary.
For a period drama, 'Cinderella Man' benefits from quite a lively sound mix. Presented here in English Dolby Digital-Plus (French and Spanish dubs are also provided), it also gets a small but sometimes noticeable boost over the plain-jane Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the standard DVD release.
What most impressed me about 'Cinderella Man's mix is the nice integration of the score (another typically fine effort from 'Shawshank Redemption' composer Thomas Newman) with the dialogue, largely during the first half of the film. Sure, I knew the boxing stuff would be suitably bombastic -- and it is -- but I appreciated the subtle use of atmosphere during the film's quietest moments. Dynamic range is excellent, with very warm and open mid-range, which works very well for Newman's minimalist, somewhat ethereal compositions. Dialogue levels are also balanced well throughout, so for once I didn't have to adjust the volume level up or down to match the loud bits with the soft moments.
When the boxing scenes do kick in, they are forcefully rendered. Surround use is very active, with some nice atmospherics, lots of crowd noises and other directional effects. Low bass is also powerful -- I could really feel those gut punches, ouch! -- and imaging is a bit more transparent between the front and rear channels on the Dolby Digital-Plus track than the standard DVD release. A very solid mix that actually bests the video quality.
Porting over all of the extras from the two-disc Collector's Edition of 'Cinderella Man' released on standard DVD late last year, this HD-DVD has a ton of supplements that border on overkill.
First up are no less than three audio commentaries, each a solo track. Director Ron Howard provides us with the best one, waxing upbeat on all aspects of the production, from what initially attracted him to the material to working with Russell Crowe and the cast to the challenges in filming not only a period piece but one based on such a well-known historical figure. Faced with the task of keeping us engaged for the film's long 144-minute runtime, Howard does an admirable job. Unfortunately, the remaining two tracks, with the film's credited screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith on one and original scribe Cliff Hollingsworth on the other, probably should have been edited together. Hollingsworth's track in particular is leadened by much dead airtime, though I'm impressed he doesn't come off as bitter at being replaced by Goldsmith in the early stages of development. Both share a few interesting tidbits on how they had to work and rework key scenes, and Hollingsworth also reveals the film's original title was 'The Cinderella Man' -- with the 'The' being mysterious dropped by the time the film hit theaters. Aside from film students and aspiring screenwriters, though, I doubt either of these tracks will be of much interest to casual fans of the film.
Up next is an assemblage of cut footage. On the original standard DVD release, these were divided into two separate sections -- 20 minutes of "Deleted Scenes," and another 15 minutes of "Additional Deleted Scenes." Thankfully, Universal combined them into one 35-minute presentation for this HD DVD release, and all can be accessed either with or without audio commentary by Howard. Some cuts include a sequence between Braddock and Gould discussing the finer points of fame, and a nice bit with Mae hiding her husband's arm cast under a layer of shoe polish. Pretty good stuff, at least compared to the utterly needless deleted scenes that clog most DVDs.
But wait, there is still tons more to go. There is no less than a dozen featurettes on the disc, which more or less fall into four categories -- making-of material, historical material, the score, and how they created all those realistically-looking boxing scenes. Unfortunately, just about all this stuff is culled from the same collection of EPK interviews, so there is some repetition involved and everyone is so gushingly positive it all gets a bit sickly-sweet after awhile. But it is hard to argue with such an avalanche of material.
"The Fight Card: 'Cinderella Man'" runs 23-minutes and features Howard and casting director Jane Jenkins on how they attracted the film's fine ensemble, even though Crowe was pretty much a no-brainer after the success he and Howard enjoyed on 'A Beautiful Mind.' Next up is "Russell Crowe’s Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock," which is a pretty much a music video of the physical training Crowe had to endure to transform himself into Braddock (Crowe and his Australian rock band even provide the segment's pretty lame pop song). "The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey," is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, if only because Penny Marshall was originally set to direct 'Cinderella Man,' and she talks opening about liking the material but ultimately departing the project before Howard stepped in. But wait, there is also "Pre-Fight Preparations," which basically regurgitates the same information, only a bit more in-depth. It also features additional interview material with Hollingsworth talking about the genesis of the project and the Marshall-Howard switchover. However, as so much of this information is also on the commentary, it is all a bit repetitious.
More visceral are the four featurettes on the making of 'Cinderella Man's fight scenes. Starting things off with a whimper is "For the Record: The History of Boxing," which is a visit with the film's boxing consultant Angelo Dundee. Not to be rude, but it is kind of a yawner. Much better is the 9-minute "Ringside Seats," a lively roundtable discussion between Howard, Goldsmith, producer Brian Grazer and author Norman Mailer, commenting over actual footage of the championship bout between the two titans. Rounding this subsection out is "Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle," which delivers in the nitty-gritty production details of staging the fight scenes. Director of photography Salvatore Totino and editor Dan Hanley talk about constructing the complex sequences, and how Howard wanted to ensure that the audience understood "when Braddock was winning, and why he was winning." I'd say he more or less succeeded.
For you historical buffs, the disc includes three segments on Braddock's legacy. The 11-minute "Jim Braddock: The Friends, and Family Behind the Legend" gives us a peak at the real Braddock's life and times, complete with radio interview material recorded with Braddock in the 1930s, as well as Howard meeting one of his surviving sons, Howard Braddock. "Human Face of the Depression" culls footage from a documentary Howard made way back in high school about the Depression, and incorporates it into a one-on-one interview between Howard and Grazer discussing their intent to be as historically accurate as possible to the actual time period. The last bit is a lengthy 32-minutes of raw "Braddock vs. Baer Fight Footage," which comes from the actual 1935 heavyweight fight between the fighters. The ring announcer introduces Braddock as the man "who, in the last year, made the greatest comeback in ring history," and it's pretty cool stuff to watch.
The final two featurettes focus on composer Thomas Newman. "The Sound of the Bell" runs a too-short 6-minutes but gives a pretty good peek at the conceptualization and recording of the score. Howard and Newman had also worked together previously on 'Gung Ho,' and the director plucked him again for 'Cinderella Man' because he liked the "freshness" of his many acclaimed soundtracks, including 'Shawshank Redemption' and 'American Beauty.' There is also the blah "Music Featurette," but it is really just a commercial for the film's soundtrack CD, along with a repeat of footage of Newman discussing the crucial interaction between he and Howard.
Finally, we come to the end of our journey, and the only omission from the standard DVD release I could find. The orignal disc had two photo montages -- the imaginatively-titled 3-minute "Photo Montage," and the 6-minute "Kodak 'Cinderella Man' Gallery," the latter set to selections from Newman's score. However, only the former seems to be included here, but then both of these were pretty needless the first time around, because after watching a 144-minute movie, three commentaries and two hours of video material, it is hard to imagine anyone could stomach one more minute of 'Cinderella Man.'
I thought 'Cinderella Man' was just okay. I'm not as sold on the film as its growing legion of fans, and I don't feel it is one of Ron Howard's finest efforts. Certainly, it is a gorgeously-mounted production, and it is hard not to root for a character as inspiring as the real-life James J. Braddock. The performances are also strong all around, especially a surprisingly humble Russell Crowe and the great Paul Giamatti. As for this HD DVD release, it offers only a fair upgrade in picture quality over the standard DVD, but the sound mix is great and there are tons of supplements. So as much as the overall package offers great value for money, I can't quite give this one four stars due to the not-quite-stellar video quality.