Ron Howard believes in America. His faith in the whole package of democratic ideals and family values smooths out the wrinkles in films (the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, the immigrant saga Far and Away) that would be better off with their creases unpressed. Howard is fifty-one, but the image of the freckle-faced kid he was on TV as Opie and Richie still sticks to him as a gift and a curse.rkness (Backdraft, The Missing) does not become him. His flair for comedy (Splash, Night Shift) can turn cornball (Parenthood) or crass (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Yet at those times when Howard takes on a tough subject — old age (Cocoon), a failed space mission (Apollo 13) — and doesn’t bland out, he can do wonders.
is is one of those times. ot only is Cinderella Man Howard’s best movie, it is also his most personal and deeply felt. The true story of James J. Braddock, played with blazing brilliance by Russell Crowe, hits Howard where he lives. Irishman Braddock was a washed-up boxer from New Jersey who could barely support his wife and three kids during the Depression. But the powerful left hand he developed by working on the Hoboken waterfront helped him score a comeback that put the nation in his corner and prompted legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon to dub this two-legged pugilistic Seabiscuit the Cinderella Man.
The expertly crafted script by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman takes its lead from a famous line in John Ford’s 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Howard gives the film the resonant power of myth. And Wynn Thomas’ production design, lit with a poet’s eye by camera whiz Salvatore Totino, evokes the period of bread lines with rare artistry.
Of course, a film with no gray on its palette can lack human dimension. Enter a cast of miracle workers. Crowe is jaw-droppingly good, a movie with a true actor’s subtlety and grace. He plays Braddock not as a gladiator but as a family man who boxes to feed his wife and kids. But he’d rather face an opponent’s deadly blow than poverty: “At least I can see who I’m fighting,” he says. Crowe finds the sadness in Braddock when he must rely on government assistance to support his family. But he also reveals a rugged resilience. Braddock is a simple man with complicated emotions, and Crowe lets us inside his secret heart.
As Joe Gould, Braddock’s can-do manager and trainer, Paul Giamatti is a dynamite package of brash humor and scrappy tenderness. He delivers a tour de force. Bet on this consummate pro (Sideways, American Splendor) to win the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor.
Renee Zellweger brings backbone to Mae, the long-suffering Mrs. Braddock. She shows that sexual attraction is a major bond in their marriage, providing welcome heat and heart in her scenes with Crowe. Mae has one rule: She will not watch her husband take hits in the ring. It’s hard to blame her. he fight scenes may lack the surreal grandeur of Raging Bull and the tragic underpinnings of Million Dollar Baby, but Howard — working with editors Mike Hill and Dan Hanley — creates fireworks in the ring, using real boxers such as Art Binkowski, Troy Amos-Ross and Mark Simmons to take on Crowe.
All of which leads to the main event. Time: June 13th, 1935. Place: New York’s Madison Square Garden. It’s Braddock against playboy, actor and clown Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the heavyweight champ who brags about having killed two opponents by dislocating their brains. Baer is the villain of the piece, but the remarkable Bierko adds a vulnerability not in the script. It’s a seductive and scary performance that should put this versatile actor — he sang his way to a Tony nod in Broadway’s The Music Man — on the movie map.
Watching Baer and Braddock go a punishing fifteen rounds ends Cinderella Man on a note of riveting suspense. ut the film stays focused on the human drama. It’s the classic American tale of the family man triumphant, and Howard makes sure that it hits you right in the heart.