This is one of those movies where the trailer tells the whole story. Not in the sense that all the twists were spoiled by the trailer; what I mean is that the story is so simple and told in such a straightforward A-to-B way that what you gather from the 2 minute promotional run-through is as complex as it’s gonna get. Successful boxer gets knocked down by injuries, the Great Depression and sheer bad luck. Then he gets a second chance, pulls a one-in-a-million comeback and inspires a Nation On Its Knees To Stand On Its Feet. The End.
What more do you get when you stretch this synopsis over 144 minutes? You see a little of the early, happy times, with then undefeated Jim Braddock making a lot of money and enjoying a perfectly satisfying home life with his three cutely “troublemaking” kids and his wife Mae, with whom he still behaves like idiotic teenagers in love. The movie then takes an abrupt 5 year jump and plunges us and the Braddocks deep into the Depression. Our coulda-been-a-contender protagonist struggles to get work at the docks with countless other men and his better half can barely scrape something together to feed the children. Things are not good.
The period recreation is convincing and the production values are solid, but for most of the film one wonders what’s the point of it all. Ron Howard’s direction feels oddly flat, neither finding the subtlety to naturally build the audience’s interest nor juicing things up for some cheap thrills. Only our predisposed investment in the lead players manages to make the proceedings not too painfully bland. Even then, as great an actor as Russell Crowe is, he could never overcome the impression that this is just a riff on Sylvester Stallone’s iconic, much more layered and moving portrayal of a working class underdog pugilist in the original Rocky. Likewise, Renee Zellwegger’s long-suffering spouse and Paul Giamatti’s no-nonsense coach can’t help but feel like pale imitations of Talia Shire’s Adrian and Burgess Meredith’s Mickey.
Still, when we get into the Cinderella part of the story, where our hero bounces back from the bottom, there’s a little something that stirs inside you. We’ve seen this a thousand times before, but there remains some excitement in the sight of the little guy making it against all odds. Braddock’s been hurt and humiliated, everyone thinks he’s a bum, but now he’s got a shot at the title. All the experts say his opponent is sure to beat him, maybe even kill him (two men died from his punches in the ring before), but he still wants to go for it, gosh darn it. If you don’t know how this will turn out, you’ve obviously never seen a sports movie!