"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 [as] 'Cinderella Man' does have an ever-growing legion of fans. 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.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Cinderella Man' to the Blu-ray ring on a Region Free, BD50 disc and housed in the standard blue keepcase. At start-up, the disc goes straight to the main menu with the customary selection and full-motion clips playing in the background.
For this Blu-ray edition of 'Cinderella Man,' Universal Studios appears to have used the same 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.35:1) seen on the 2006 HD DVD release. Only now, five years into the high-def format and compared to over a thousand other Blu-ray titles, the picture quality of the Ron Howard biopic falls on the average side of things. Still, it's a satisfying enough presentation for fans.
Fine object and textural details are attractive with strong definition throughout, yet there's not much to the video that truly impresses. A very light veneer of grain is ever present, giving the image an appreciable film-like quality and showing a good depth of field. Contrast is well-balanced with sharp whites, but the overall transfer feels somewhat bland and plain. The photography and color palette veers towards the warmer gamut — the orange and teal type favored in many movies over the past decade. Nevertheless, primaries are bright and accurate. Blacks could be deeper and richer, appearing a tad dull in several spots, and shadows often overwhelm the background info during poorly-lit sequences. In the end, 'Cinderella Man' can hold its own the first few rounds on Blu-ray, but ultimately fails to deliver that knockout punch to win spectators over.
Universal also offers the sports drama with an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that's only slightly better than its Dolby Digital Plus counterpart. Most impressive, and as expected, are the boxing matches, occupying the entire rear soundscape with the cheers and applause of the audience. Directional cues and effects are convincing at generating a 360-degree soundfield, pulling the viewer right into the middle of the action. Low bass is highly-responsive and effective, giving each punch a commanding and authoritative force. Of course, much of this is until the second half of the movie.
A majority of the design is a front-heavy mix where a warm and spacious soundstage delivers well-prioritized vocals, which are never drowned out by the excitement of the bouts. Thomas Newman's subtle but elegant score enjoys a welcoming presence and good fidelity detail. Dynamic range is also broad and far-reaching, maintaining a lossless track that's affable and welcoming from beginning to end. All in all, the high-rez audio for 'Cinderella Man' puts on a great performance that goes toe-to-toe with most other Blu-ray titles.
Universal Studios ports over the same wealth of supplements as the 2006 HD DVD release, which is good because it's rather extensive. Still, something new to make previous owners comfortable with their purchase would have been nice.
With tremendously beautiful production value and an inspiring story on the life of James J. Braddock, Ron Howard creates a fine and efficient biopic with the popular 'Cinderella Man.' The sports drama delivers great entertainment as it is well-made with strong performances, but it also falls a bit on the sappy side, trying to pull on the heartstrings with somewhat of a heavy hand. The Blu-ray comes with the same audio and video presentation as the previous HD DVD release, but it really doesn't compare with other catalog titles with better picture quality. Supplements are also identical, making this package a worthwhile recommendation for those who didn't purchase the high-def release back in 2006.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.