2005-06-17 / Columnists

‘Cinderella Man’ – Another Knockout

Director Ron Howard is on a roll with his “A Beautiful Mind” star, Russell Crowe, scoring another knockout in the boxing redemption film, “Cinderella Man.”

Based on true story of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock (Crowe), “Cinderella Man” does a Frank Capra “It’s a Wonderful Life” turn by taking its kind-hearted protagonist to the depths of despair, only to raise him to the unexpected heights of success and happiness.

A promising fighter, Braddock is dumped by the boxing commission after a disappointing bout with light, heavyweight champ Tommy Loughran. Though Braddock has an excuse (his right hand is broken in three places), tough-as-nails promoter Jimmy Johnston (Bruce McGill) won’t cut him a break, leaving Braddock groveling for work at the New Jersey docks to support his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), and three kids. As food runs out and debts pile up, former fighter swallows what little pride he has left and literally passes the hat among the boxing commission big-shots, so he can pay his electric bill and keep his family from freezing to death.

 Then, our hero gets a second chance. It comes in the form of a one-shot fight with a rising star, whose opponent backed out at the last minute. While Braddock is anticipated to barely go a round, he finds surprising strength in his left hook (developed from dock work) and wins by a knockout.

 In his third winning performance in a row, Paul Giamatti  (“Sideways,” “American Spender”) plays loyal manager Joe Gould, who wrangles a match with heavyweight champ Max Baer. The problem is that Baer killed two opponents in the ring and will likely do the same to Braddock. This leads to the emotionally wrenching climatic fight, which almost out-uplifts “Rocky.”

Despite a tendency to lose his Jersey accent, Crowe delivers a portrayal which is a study in sensitivity and understatement. Zellweger is her usual doe-eyed self showing the necessary, though often conflicted, inner strength to keep her man on track. Ever-resourceful, always entertaining Giamatti pumps life into the movie and his boxer, when things seem to be deflating.

However, the major triumph goes to Howard who, hopefully, will be remembered at Oscar-time for what is one of the greatest life-affirming films of all time.

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