Like most boxing pictures, Cinderella Man is about an underdog becoming a top dog. But that description doesn't begin to suggest the distinctions of director Ron Howard's very good, epically scaled film.
To begin with, it tells a true story, that of James J. Braddock, who may be the most unlikely heavyweight champion in history. When we meet Braddock (Russell Crowe), he's a promising pug, who is quickly reduced to has-been status by injuries and the Depression. Howard realizes the period with perfect authenticity: the biting chill, the hungry faces, the bleak desperation.
Crowe's Braddock is similarly genuinea winning blend of simplicity, stubbornness and working-class charm. Renée Zellweger makes dogood times or badburying her fears under a soft-spoken feistiness. And Paul Giamatti as Braddock's trainer-manager is a revelation. He's a chipper, wised-up guy who gets Braddock his comeback fight, then guides his rise to the championship bout with Max Baer, played with a menacing charm and sadism by Craig Bierko.
Oddly enough, Baer is the most shaded character in the film, in his way prefiguring a more modern ambiguity. But the film is most significantly about puzzled people trying to comprehend the cosmic reversal of fortune that was the Depression. They don't have much more than raw courage and simple virtues to rely on. Unlike most period pieces, Cinderella Man encourages us to fondly recall not songs or clothes but values we have largely mislaid. Look on the faces of the elder Braddocks when they realize they don't have enough fried bologna to feed their kids, and you'll understand true despairand the bravery it takes to overcome it. By Richard Schickel