Woe be unto the big-budget serious Hollywood film that's released at the wrong time of year. On just about any fight card, Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (2005) would be a top contender, with an Oscar-winning director and two stars above the title. But the vagaries of production and release schedules caused Universal to virtually dump the film into theaters in June, when ticket-buyers queue up for summer tentpole spectacles and family movies, not sepia-toned, two-hour-plus Depression-era boxing dramas. And thus, while Cinderella Man grossed a respectable $50 million after a month in release, it fell well short of its reported $88 million budget, becoming an unfortunate focal point of the year's overall box-office slump. Which leaves DVD as the title's last, best chance at glory arriving in December with plenty of publicity, it may be the only thing that reminds Academy voters of the movie's existence, while finally allowing it to connect with audiences at home.
Russell Crowe stars in Cinderella Man as Jim J. Braddock, a respected New Jersey boxer who found success in the 1920s with a string of wins. Having never been KO'd, he's also considered a strong contender for the heavyweight championship. But a string of setbacks put Braddock on his heels. The Crash of '29 wipes out much of his savings, and injuries force him to fight hurt and lose. By 1933, he's out of the game entirely, barely able to support his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and three young children. Occasionally getting work on the docks and refusing to accept public assistance, the Braddocks come very close to sending their children away to live with relatives, but one last opportunity presents itself: Braddock's manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) is able to get him on a card with a heavyweight contender, due to a last-second withdrawal by a scheduled opponent. The out-of-shape Braddock gladly accepts the chance to get his face beat in for $250, but to everyone's surprise he prevails leading to further victories, and finally the fight that eluded him in his prime, a championship bout with title-holder Max Baer (Craig Bierko), a towering figure with a lethal right hook who's killed two men in the ring.
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Ron Howard's reputation behind the camera seems to center on two things: a remarkable instinct for making movies that make money, and a notorious instinct for schmaltz. Cinderella Man is no exception, although the craftsmanship throughout also reveals that Howard is a mature, experienced director, one who's entirely committed to quality control on complicated projects, and a man who doesn't overlook small details, but instead embraces them. In fact, Cinderella Man as a box-office disappointment (although it certainly will turn a profit on DVD) actually presents Howard with that one, great thing that all auteurs seem to require on their filmographies: the overlooked gem, shunned by the general public, but embraced by critics, and later a growing number of defenders with the passing of years. As with his previous film The Missing (2003), Howard appears more willing to delve into genre pieces, following up a western in the style of John Ford with a boxing film set in one of America's most archetypal decades. That Cinderella Man doesn't quite compare with the two titans of boxing cinema Raging Bull (1980) and Rocky is no matter. As to be expected, the director has followed his own instincts, while combining elements of Martin Scorsese's hyperkinetic editing in the ring with Sylvester Stallone's against-all-odds melodrama. There are moments when Howard (shooting a script by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) telegraphs emotions with the subtlety of a haymaker as when Braddock takes a near-knockout blow and recalls images of his children. But he also offers details of 1930s New York and New Jersey that no longer linger in our cultural memory, such as the homeless camp "Hooverville" in Central Park, neighborhood birthday parties for children who share a single cake, lines for public assistance and day labor, and the way the poor are buried in simple boxes, lining mass graves. It makes for somber viewing, put into effective contrast with the energetic, often brutal fight sequences. And the final Braddock vs. Baer match is a small movie in itself, edited from innumerable camera angles in a dizzying array of flashbulbs and jabs, illustrating the pain and punishment of boxing as only cinema can.
Universal's two-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD release of Cinderella Man offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that richly renders the film's limited color palette, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is solid. Supplements on Disc One include five deleted scenes with commentary by Ron Howard, the featurettes "The Man, The Movie, The Legend: A Filmmaking Journey" (14 min.), "The Fight Card: Casting Cinderella Man" (23 min.), "For the Record: A History in Boxing" (6 min.) with fight consultant Angelo Dundee, "Ringside Seats" with Norman Mailer, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Akiva Goldsman (9 min.), and "Jim Braddock: The Friends & Family Behind the Legend" (11 min.). Disc Two offers even more behind-the-scenes and archival footage, with ten additional deleted scenes, "Russell Crowe's Personal Journey: Becoming Jim Braddock" (27 min.), "Lights, Camera, Action: The Fight from Every Angle" (21 min.), "The Sound of the Bell" (6 min.), "The Human Face of the Depression" (6 min.), four featurettes on pre-fight preparations, and footage of the 1935 Braddock vs. Baer bout (31 min.). Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
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