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A retro tale told in a mostly retro style, Ron Howard’s real-life Rocky has everything a ’30s boxing picture should have—and too much more. At 2 hours and 24 minutes, Cinderella Man is easily twice as long as any vintage Warner Bros. problem drama, and that extra footage contains nothing for viewers who don’t relish the impact of padded fists on human flesh. The director isn’t gutsy enough to challenge Raging Bull’s brutality anyway, so the boxing sequences are as inessential as the family melodrama that frames them. A contender when the film begins, in 1928, New Jersey pugilist Jim Braddock (a black-haired Russell Crowe) takes a tumble along with his country. After an opening success, the story hops to 1933, when Braddock, noble wife Mae (Renée Zellweger), and their three tykes are living in a hovel and scrounging for food. Now fighting for a pitiful 50 bucks a bout, Braddock breaks his hand, seemingly ending his career. But as he works the docks with angry, alcoholic ex-stockbroker Mike (Paddy Considine), he boosts his upper-body strength and improves the coordination of his previously sluggish left hand. When former manager Joe (Paul Giamatti) offers him a last-minute fill-in slot, Braddock surprises everyone, and he’s soon facing the swaggering Max Baer (Craig Bierko), whose potent slugging has already killed two opponents. (Cue Zellweger’s trembling lip.) Having dabbled in Cold War politics with A Beautiful Mind only to reveal ’50s paranoia as a private delusion, Howard and Crowe have returned with a biopic that struggles heroically to prove it’s more grounded in reality. Scripted by Cliff Hollingsworth and A Beautiful Mind’s Akiva Goldsman and shot in ChiaroscuroScope by Changing Lanes cinematographer Salvatore Totino, Cinderella Man means well; it even takes a Hooverville side trip to show us ’30s-style despair and police brutality. And though Zellweger is nearly as ridiculous here as in Cold Mountain, Crowe turns in a solid, if not quite believable, simulation of a humble family man. Ultimately, however, Cinderella Man is an oversized historical drama with the soul of a B-movie: Every labored detail is as predictable as the crescendos of Thomas Newman’s score.

—Mark Jenkins