Here comes the haymaker: Howard’s ‘Cinderella Man’ levels the blockbuster crowd with its one-two punch of story and substance

“Cinderella Man”

Universal Pictures

Directed by Ron Howard

Written by Cliff Hollingsworth, Charlie Mitchell and Akiva Goldsman

Starring: Russell Crowe, Rene Zellweger, Connor Price, Craig Bierko and Paul Giamatti

Rated PG-13/146 minutes

Opens June 3, 2005

Three-and-a-half out of four stars

Director Ron Howard’s new biopic, “Cinderella Man,” comes equipped with a virtually matchless cast, a transfixing, emotionally charged story and the most gripping boxing displays outside of Caesar’s Palace.

Without a skilled foreman-a director capable of fashioning a stable frame out of these cinematic building blocks-“Cinderella Man” might have crumbled under a clamor of competing personas and torrents of sap. But, contrary to the pretentious notion that all popular directors are inherently incompetent and pandering, Howard proves a master craftsman. His efforts yield a genuinely uplifting, beautiful piece of entertainment-one that digs deep into the annals of film to remind us of why we go to the movies in the first place.

Set in Depression-era New Jersey and New York, “Cinderella Man” centers on washed-up Joe-everyman boxer James Braddock (played by Russell Crowe, in rare form and rare shape), who, in fighting to feed his wife Mae (played by Rene Zellweger) and their kids, defies probability and miraculously wins-every single fight.

Braddock inadvertently becomes a champion of the downtrodden-the Cinderella Man, as one sports writer christens him. Raw tenacity drives him through the prizefighting ranks until Braddock hits a barricade in the form of reigning champion Max Baer (played by Craig Bierko), a fighter whose hammer-blows to the backs of two opponents’ heads severed their brain stems from their spinal cords.

“Cinderella” culminates in the opposing duo’s legendary marathon slugfest (15 full rounds), after which Braddock is crowned undisputed champion, much to his frenzied wife’s relief.

Crowe brings a nearly unparalleled level of cultivation and nuance to his endearing, noble character. At one point, when the Braddocks cannot scrape up enough money to heat their house, James is forced to beg from a roomful of fat-cat promoters. Crowe’s face, lined with pain and humiliation, conveys an almost unfathomable loss of dignity. If at that moment Crowe’s Braddock had asked an audience member for a contribution, he or she would have emptied every pocket and offered him a watch. Few actors can play an audience like this, and fewer still radiate such dynamic presence.

Zellweger, on the other hand, just needs to stop squinting. Seriously, it impedes her ability to convey realistic emotion. When Mae cries, her eyes submerge into the sockets and all but disappear from her face-she looks like a Cabbage Patch doll. It’s ridiculous.

Otherwise, Zellweger’s performance as the understandably harried, mildly neurotic boxer’s wife is decent. Honestly, though, this role required a little more “Empire Records” and a little less “Bridget Jones.”

The perennial anyman Paul Giamatti comes through big-time, picking up Zellweger’s ample slack-his Joe Gould provides ample relief as Braddock’s trash-talking manager.

Giamatti, like fellow chameleons Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly and William H. Macy, is a quintessential character actor. He has a rare talent for emblazoning characters’ names rather than his own into viewers’ memories. Giamattti is Gould, just as he was Miles in “Sideways” and Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.” For a character actor, such associations must be a source of enormous self-satisfaction.

“Cinderella’s” cinematographer, Salvatore Totino, provides a style that is simultaneously in-your-face and invigorating. His fight scenes induce an almost uncontrollable urge to put up your dukes and square off with anyone willing to go a round or two. Totino’s impeccable cinematography deserves as much credit as Howard’s direction and the film’s intricate story. This type of cinematic ensemble excellence is invaluable.

When the final bell rings and the blood, sweat and tears are wiped from the mats, the scorecard reads easily: Howard delivers a knockout this time around. An open-minded Academy would do well to recognize this contender come Oscar season.

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