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Published: 6/3/2005

Movie review: Cinderella Man *****

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The need for hope is universal.

This is the underlying theme of Cinderella Man, Ron Howard's movie about boxer James Braddock, who fought in the 1920s and '30s.

Howard, who won an Academy Award for directing A Beautiful Mind, is not the best storyteller in the world, but he may have one of the best set-ups. Think of his other movies, such as Far and Away, Apollo 13, and Backdraft. What sticks in the memory is the start of the story, the characters, the action, the scenery, but not the end.

Those memories just sort of fade away.

To a point, Cinderella Man is like that, although Howard is getting savvier about not going on and on after the big climax.

And it helps tremendously that he has reteamed with his Beautiful Mind star, Russell Crowe, for the pair apparently are on the same wavelength when it comes to making movies.

When Howard sets the stage for his movie, he dresses it carefully, down to the smallest touches, for as much as Cinderella Man is the story of a boxer, it is the story of the Great Depression. And Howard brings that sad, desperate time alive in a way no history book can.

For a generation whose knowledge of the effects of a stock-market crash is confined to the burst of the '90s dot-com bubble, Cinderella Man is a searing portrait of a nation reeling from a loss of economic strength and emotional faith. Through no fault of their own, families are thrown into an abyss of poverty, with little hope of ever climbing out. Good news is when there's a little milk left in the bottle that can be watered down so there's enough for everyone at the table.

Cinderella Man is also a whale of a good boxing movie, with some of the most powerfully choreographed fight scenes ever filmed.

They're so good, in fact, that Crowe, a man with an immense public persona, disappears into his character. He and Howard make it easy to believe we're watching Braddock and are part of his life and times instead of just watching Crowe play Braddock.

It's a strong, subtle performance instead of a showy one. There are no long, lingering shots of Crowe and his brooding profile. (I still haven't forgiven Mel Gibson for those in Braveheart.) Instead, he goes about his business, showing us a man whose pride has been crushed by circumstance but who remains determined to provide for his family, whatever it takes.

In the late 1920s, Braddock enjoyed quite a bit of success as a boxer. Dubbed "The Bulldog of Bergen," a nod to his New Jersey hometown, Braddock made a decent living for his wife and children.

But after a string of losses and a badly broken hand, Braddock lost his license and his livelihood. Then the Great Depression hit and he lost his savings. His family was forced to sell most of what it owned. He moved his family into a dingy one-room basement, and Braddock hit the docks every morning, looking to pick up any kind of work to feed his family.

When things can get no worse - the electricity has been turned off, the kids are sick - there is a ray of hope. Braddock's former manager, Joe Gould, finds him a fight.

The fight is with Colm Griffin, a Georgia heavyweight who needs one more match before he can face Max Baer, the heavyweight champion of the world.

Gould expects Braddock to lose. Braddock expects Braddock to lose. But the $250 he is promised will pay his bills and keep the family together. Against all odds, Braddock wins.

I'm not revealing any plot secrets here. Anyone interested can research Braddock's life and find out. The thing is, it doesn't matter.

Cinderella Man (a name given to Braddock by writer Damon Runyon) creates its own suspense. You may already know what happens in each of Braddock's fights, but I defy you not to be on the edge of your seat during the movie.

Howard has put together a marvelous supporting cast for Crowe, led by Paul Giamatti as Gould, whose own fight for self-respect demands that he help Braddock. Snubbed by Oscar voters last year for Sideways, Giamatti may find himself in contention this year.

As Braddock's wife, Mae, Renee Zellweger doesn't have a whole lot to do besides looking anguished or pretending to be cheerful for the sake of the kids. But despite the lack of complexity in her character, Zellweger makes us believe in Mae's loyalty to and unwavering faith in her husband.

Craig Bierko as Max Baer seems like a buffoon for about two seconds, then his charisma kicks in, and shortly after that, he becomes downright scary.

Howard is often criticized for being manipulative and excessively sentimental, and I suppose there's some of that in Cinderella Man. But he also knows how to please his audience and keep them coming back for more.

In those respects, Cinderella Man is a knockout.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.



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