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Friday, June 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Crowe nails role as unexpected hero in "Cinderella Man"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Cinderella Man," with Russell Crowe, Rene Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine, Bruce McGill, Ron Canada. Directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. 138 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language. Several theaters.

There's a faint film of dust over Ron Howard's boxing drama "Cinderella Man," just enough to show us that what we have here is an antique, and a rather lovely one at that. Howard, that most old-fashioned of contemporary Hollywood filmmakers, has settled into a style that suits him: noble characters, sweeping music, stories of good folk triumphing in the dusty light. And here he's found a story (scripted by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) that perfectly fits that style. Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, it turns out, had a life that sounds exactly like a Ron Howard movie. A working-class family man from New Jersey, Braddock had some success as a pro boxer in the 1920s, but his career faltered with the arrival of the Depression. Impoverished and desperate to support his family of five, Braddock began to box again, despite a badly injured hand and his worried wife's disapproval. One bout led to another, a folk-hero image was formed, and in 1935, Braddock — now known as Cinderella Man for his fairy-tale return to the spotlight — found himself facing heavyweight champion Max Baer for the title at a packed Madison Square Garden, with millions of fans listening on their radios.

Can't you see the movie already, with Russell Crowe as the noble boxer and Renée Zellweger as his beloved wife, Mae, and Thomas Newman's music welling up in the background like aggressively pretty wallpaper? Howard's version will surprise nobody; it's almost like watching an old movie that you vaguely remember seeing before. But it's beautifully acted and skillfully made, and even skeptics may find themselves getting caught up in the action in spite of themselves.

Crowe, in particular, has rarely been more appealing; taking a too-good-to-be-true scripted character and creating a breathing, laughing, real man. He looks thinner than usual here (as befits a Depression character who gives the extra food to his children) but has a playful sparkle; he knows who he is. Crowe always looks like the biggest man on screen, even when he isn't; he's got a big presence and a charm that he easily flicks on and off. Braddock is motivated by pride, and Crowe conveys that without ever going too far.

In one scene, the boxer, desperate to pay bills, passes his hat among the men of the boxing commission. Crowe's body is tense and he never makes eye contact with the men who toss in coins; his jaw is set tight, and he doesn't thank them. Because of the actor's toughness, the moment escapes sentimentality. Later, when Braddock is offered a chance to earn $250 in a questionable bout, the tightness suddenly eases. "For $250, I'd fight your wife," he cheerfully tells his manager.

And because that manager, Joe Gould, is played by Paul Giamatti (the wine-loving writer in "Sideways"), the two emerge as the movie's key relationship. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with Zellweger's performance; she's all glowing sweetness, and believably so. But Mae is one of those big-movie noble-wife roles that gives Zellweger virtually nothing to do (except for a pre-fight pep talk, in which she manages to make the line "You are the champion of my heart" not sound cloying), and we tend to forget about her when she's off-screen.

Giamatti, as Joe, is the wild card in this otherwise by-the-book boxing drama; his character is the only one that we can't quite get an instant read on. With dark circles under his eyes, he always looks like he's holding something back. If the strapping Braddock is an open book, Joe is a locked drawer. (The Depression affected these men in different ways; in a startling scene in an elegant apartment, we learn a bit of what Joe is hiding.) But the men spark off each other; not really friends but partners in an endeavor that both desperately need. The boxing scenes, with Giamatti fluttering around Crowe like a nervous moth, are staged economically and effectively, with sickening crunches and blurry shots that convey Braddock's disorientation.

"Cinderella Man" is made with confidence and sincerity; it's a good movie about good people, viewed through a sepia kaleidoscope of sweet-natured nostalgia. (This Depression is just a bit picturesque, with Zellweger often looking like she just emerged from some tenement beauty salon.) Pardon its dust, and you'll be rewarded with a moving story of a time gone by, and of an unexpected hero.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmadonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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