It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There is a moment early in "Cinderella Man" when we see Russell Crowe in the boxing ring, filled with cocky self-confidence, and I thought I knew what direction the story would take. I could not have been more mistaken. I walked in knowing nothing about Jim Braddock, "The Bulldog of Bergen," whose riches-to-rags-to-riches career inspired the movie. My friend Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated, who just won the A.J. Liebling Award, the highest honor a boxing writer can attain, could have told me all about Braddock, but I am just as happy to have gone in cold, so that I could be astonished by Crowe's performance.
I think of Crowe as a tough customer, known to get in the occasional brawl. Yes, he plays men who are inward and complex, as in "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind," or men who are tempered and wise, as in "Master and Commander." But neither he nor anyone else in a long time has played such a nice man as the boxer Jim Braddock. You'd have to go back to actors like James Stewart and Spencer Tracy to find such goodness and gentleness. Tom Hanks could handle the assignment, but do you see any one of them as a prizefighter? Tracy, maybe.
As the film opens, Braddock is riding high with a series of victories that buy a comfortable, but not opulent, lifestyle for his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) and their children Jay, Rosemarie and Howard. Also doing OK is Braddock's loyal manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti, in a third home run after "American Splendor" and "Sideways"). Then Braddock breaks his right hand, loses some matches so badly his license is taken away, and descends with his family to grim poverty in the early days of the Depression.
What is remarkable during both the highs and the lows is that Braddock, as Crowe plays him, remains level-headed, sweet-tempered and concerned about his family above all. Perhaps it takes a tough guy like Crowe to make Braddock's goodness believable. Mae is just the wife he deserves, filled with love and loyalty, and so terrified he will be hurt that she refuses to attend his fights and won't even listen on the radio.