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The clock strikes

Cinderella Man stars Russell Crowe as a big - galoot who - punches people for a living.
  • Cinderella Man stars Russell Crowe as a big galoot who punches people for a living.

Pueblo's own Damon Runyon coined the nickname "Cinderella Man" for boxing champ "Irish Jim" Braddock, a light heavyweight who emerged from obscurity and hard luck during the Great Depression to win the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World and become a hero of the working man.

This is fine film fodder for director Ron Howard, who loves nothing better than wringing tears of feel-good virtue from an audience. The only surprise in Cinderella Man, a by-the-book boxing biopic, is that the story hadn't been turned into a screenplay long before now.

Howard again teams up with screenwriter Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind) and actor Russell Crowe to tell the tale of Braddock's descent into poverty at the height of the Depression, his virtuous life as a husband and father, and his ultimate triumph in the ring over ruthless heavyweight champion Max Baer.

Despite some problems with pacing and Howard's tendency to go on too long -- the film clocks in at two and a half hours -- Cinderella Man accomplishes its dual purpose: It tells the uplifting tale of Braddock's boxing career while creating a lump-in-the-throat metaphor for what is (or, at least, what was) best about America, land of opportunity.

Because Rocky told the same story, it's impossible not to make comparisons, and there are many obvious ones here. Where Rocky had the crowd cheering for the punch-drunk palooka from Nowheresville, Cinderella Man leaves the audience smiling and satisfied, though not particularly stimulated.

Three things distinguish the film: spectacular production quality, riveting ring scenes and the one-two punch of Crowe as Braddock and Paul Giamatti as Joe Gould, his indomitable manager. Howard and company, including cinematographer Salvatore Totino, have painstakingly recreated 1930s New York City, including the neon palace of Madison Square Garden and the cardboard box ghetto of Central Park's Hooverville, lending the film grainy, time-tinted authenticity.

Borrowing camera and staging technique from Martin Scorsese and his successors in the genre, Howard creates palpable, even painful, tension in the fight scenes. They culminate in Braddock's bout with Baer, who is depicted in a fine character performance by Craig Beirko as a flashy showboat and ladies' man who'd just as soon kill an opponent as win with a knockout punch. (Two boxers actually died after fighting Baer.) Blood splatters, ribs are cracked, sweat flies and time stops, again and again.

Scenes outside the ring are less successful, especially a long sequence focused on the Braddock's basement tenement home and family. Jim's long-suffering wife is played with squinty, twisty poutiness by squinty, twisty, pouty Renee Zellweger; their brood of wide-eyed, starving kids is adorable. (It's as if Howard put out a casting call for pale, big-eared child actors with dark circles under their eyes and hit paydirt.)

Crowe and Giamatti carry the film capably, with a potent mix of pathos, humor, energy and guts. Giamatti, whose trademark character is a weary, wise-ass cynic (Sideways), makes Gould the most engaging boxing manager and sideline coach in the annals of boxing movies. He adores Braddock unconditionally but doesn't sacrifice blood lust for affection. Crowe -- with his pasty complexion, somber expression, bulky body, sly grin and lonely persona -- seems born for the role of Braddock. This is one of his finest, most understated performances in film.

Note to Howard: Turn down the volume. Theatrics and high drama don't need an ear-booming musical score to achieve the desired effect.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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