- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Better late than never, the remarkable comeback saga of Depression-era boxer James Braddock has inspired a new pugilistic classic, “Cinderella Man” (a Damon Runyon coinage). An absorbing combination of domestic sentiment, period evocation, prizefight highlights and winning performances, this fable of athletic grit and Irish-American solidarity comes from the same creative partnership behind the Oscar-winning biopic “A Beautiful Mind” — leading man Russell Crowe, director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman.

A light heavyweight contender in the late 1920s, Braddock (1905-74) later reversed a five-year slump, not to mention grinding poverty in Depression-blighted New Jersey. His unexpected winning streak led to a title bout with heavyweight champion Max Baer in New York in June 1935.

A prodigious underdog, Braddock re-emerged as a people’s choice, the unassuming but tenacious Irish-American slugger who had worked the Jersey docks while down on his luck. The fact that he had gone on county relief for a year became one of the bonding elements in his newfound popularity.

A family man pushing 30, Braddock provided a striking personality and lifestyle contrast to Baer, a 24-year-old playboy phenom from California who was considered a potential killer in the ring but alienated hard-core devotees by treating the championship as a lark. Publicity-shy, Braddock let his devoted, fast-talking manager, Joe Gould, carry their case to both promoters and the sporting press.

The prologue introduces Mr. Crowe as Jim Braddock on the rise, nearing the light heavyweight crown in 1928 and savoring the affluent prospects with his wife, Mae, a boxing-averse but playful young woman as initially projected by Renee Zellweger. The script then takes a leap into the depths of the Depression.

The Braddocks, whose savings vanished in the stock-market crash, struggle to hang on with their three children in a dingy basement apartment. Boxing takes a back seat to the apprehensions of careworn parents, determined to protect the children from want or hunger, willing to humble themselves to make ends meet, and profoundly dependent on faith in each other.

At their most effective, the filmmakers resist making a polemical spectacle of hard times. They’re adept at engraving hardship on the settings and episodes. Perhaps the most wrenching observations: Mae recruiting the children for a scavenging assault on slats from a billboard in order to heat the apartment and Jim passing the hat during a shameful return to Madison Square Garden, where he begs enough charity to cover his utility bills.

Jim Braddock in “Cinderella Man” is the strong, silent rebuke to Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” The new film takes comfort in a battler who’s essentially sane and stable. Even the fight scenes are less ostentatious as stimulants or shockers. The best editing devices emphasize flurries of punches where the impact is faster than you anticipate.

Craig Bierko’s Max Baer serves as the overconfident, sacrificial raging bull of this scenario. The filmmakers go overboard in their partiality, playing up the “killer” rep as if it had genuine validity. Baer was a fabulous personality, overdue for his own biopic. Still a stealth weapon rather than an emerging star (he was a comic powerhouse in Larry David’s “Sour Grapes”), Mr. Bierko creates a forceful yet shadowed identity as the designated heavy.

“Cinderella Man” should be an ideal “default” candidate for the Academy Awards of 2005. If something more impressive comes along, fine. If not, this will remain an obvious crowd-pleasing option.

*** 1/2

TITLE: “Cinderella Man”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, concentrated in prizefight sequences)

CREDITS: Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Cinematography by Salvatore Totino. Production design by Wynn Thomas. Costume design by Daniel Orlandi. Music by Thomas Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 144 minutes

WEB SITE: www.cinderellamanmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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