Cinderella Man. Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Running time: 144 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense boxing violence and some language). Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Paddy Considine.

Cinderella Man

Note: When this review was written, I gave the film ***1/2 stars, and therefore it reflects that rating. Short version on second viewing: the clichés bothered me more. It's still satisfying in a totally old school way, and Crowe and Giamatti are still fantastic.

Occasionally in film pure filmmaking skill can overcome whatever flaws the material might have. Such is the case in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, a traditional, almost mawkishly sentimental crowd-pleaser. In less capable hands, the film would have been a disaster; but thanks to tremendous work from Howard behind the camera, as well as Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti in front of it, it is a rowsing success, and an early Oscar contender.

The story of boxer James J. Braddock is perfect for film adaptation. Braddock was a successful fighter in the early twenties, who, after breaking his dominant hand and blowing several bouts, was unable to find fights. When the Depression hit, he was forced to work on the docks before his manager got him a test fight against an up-and-comer, which Braddock won. This propelled him into a series of fights that led to a championship bout against heavyweight Max Baer.

Played here by Crowe, Braddock became a sort of shining beacon for America, representing the ability of the everyman to overcome all odds and find success. In this aspect, Cinderella Man is very similar to 2003's Seabiscuit, but Howard manages to invest a sense of real importance to Braddock's fights, a feeling that was never present in Seabiscuit's races. During the fights, the audience is transported to the time period; every punch, every win, matters. It is incredibly difficult to invest any suspense at all - let alone this much - in events to which we already know the outcome, and that Cinderella Man does this so well is a tremendous accomplishment that is easy to overlook.

Howard does a terrific job of establishing the setting. In Braddock's apartment he dims the lights and mutes the colors, creating a real sense of desperation and loss. We are shown an entire Hooverville set up in Central Park, filled to the brim with jobless, penniless men and women. Braddock befriends a Communist dock-worker (Paddy Considine), who could have been a useless caricature but is instead fully developed in his limited screentime.

Unfortunately, Howard still takes the easy, sentimental route a little too often. Some scenes - a conversation with Braddock's sausage-stealing son; a trip to the welfare office - hold real power, but others are hopelessly schmaltzy. The worst offender here is Braddock's relationship with his wife, May (Renée Zellweger); "You will always be the champion of my heart," she says, and you can't help but roll your eyes.

Still, even the most ridiculous scenes are grounded in Crowe's incredible performance. Few, if any, living actors are as capable as Crowe at letting a character take over every facet of their being, and here he is playing a truly good man who has beaten down by life. We can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders - in each facial expression, each spoken word, Crowe shows an acceptance of the bum deal he's been dealt and an anticipation for the next bad thing that's going to happen; when he finally finds success, his happiness is heartbreaking.

Crowe is ably supported by Paul Giamatti, whose work as Braddock's manager is a knockout*, so fast-paced and energetic that it should make him an instant front-runner for Best Supporting Actor. Other supporters, ranging from Considine to Craig Bierko as fighter Baer, make strong impressions. The one weak link in the ensemble is Zellweger, who fails to turn the struggling wife archetype into anything more than a wide-eyed, crying waif. She's not the first actress unable to hold her own against Crowe - A Beautiful Mind's Jennifer Connolly is really the only one to truly succeed - but it's still a disappointing failure.

But for its problems, Cinderella Man is just terrific filmmaking in the classic sense - simple, compelling, poswerful and satisfying. Cynical critics are quick to dismiss films that are sentimental or blindly optimistic, but sometimes that's all we need to be affected, and Cinderella Man is a perfect example of this. Such an achievement is rare, and should be treasured.

*Pun definitely not intended; I'm no Gene Shalit. "Cinderella Man won my heart in the first round!", etc.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this