How exceptional a film actor is Russell Crowe? So exceptional that in Cinderella Man, he makes a good boxing movie feel at times like a great, big picture. Playing James J. Braddock, a real-life decent, downtrodden New Jersey underdog whose unlikely triumph as the heavyweight boxing champ of the world during the depths of America’s Great Depression was spun as a victory for all decent, downtrodden Americans everywhere who hungered for a second chance, Crowe does something — I can’t figure out what — that morphs the very shape of his head. He’s done this before, changing physical and emotional contours to play a whistle-blower, a mathematician, a ship’s captain, a Maximus, all of them men’s men fighting for personal integrity in a man’s world. But each time the intensity of the transformation feels complete, and unexpected; there’s not another actor working in the movies today with Crowe’s kind of gravitational pull to authenticity, to unactorliness.

And so in Cinderella Man he’s a whole new size all over again, this time scaled to the proportions of a family man, adored by and adoring his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and their three kids. In the beginning, Braddock is a lucky bruiser with a happy grin who wins in the ring, with support from his loyal, chipper trainer-manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti in yet another knockout perf — that’s three in a row), and enjoys a comfortable home thanks to the talent of his gloved fists. Then he’s a loser whose luck turns miserably bad, then a Depression-era casualty reduced to rock-bottom poverty — no money for food or electricity, nothing but love for heat, a despairing citizen on the dole. And then, luck turns again: Gould scrapes up one more unlikely fight, and Braddock wins. (Giamatti and Crowe get on like gangbusters, two powerhouses sparring.) Then he wins another, and another, leading to a climactic showdown at Madison Square Garden — the Kentucky Derby, let’s say, if the underdog were that other Depression-era American underanimal, Seabiscuit — against the cocksure, high-living, literally lethal heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko, in a career-expanding, triumphant performance).

And in each round of Ron Howard’s classically told saga (from a script by Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth), right up through the pummeling 15-round Baer-vs.-Braddock bout that decides the title, Crowe adjusts his molecular size with athletic ease: He’s substantial, he’s fading, he’s a wreck of a man (cap in hand, literally), he’s a guy who picks himself up and gets back on his feet, at no time telegraphing that being on his feet is where he’ll stay.

I make much of Crowe’s dramatic integrity because without it, what is being touted as Howard’s ”grittiest” picture would lose a fair measure of its grit — the downside of a project that wants to be not just about the blood-and-bone brutality and primal excitement of boxing, where men offer one another their bruisable bodies as collateral, but also about big themes, including hardship, Yankee resolve, American decency, and the spiritual uplift provided by a close-knit family. And Cinderella Man‘s impeccably designed, authentic-enough-looking scenes of just how dire living conditions really were for millions (subtext: Could it happen again?) would dissipate into fussy diversions without Crowe’s participation.

As it is, a fact-based reenactment of the moment Braddock repays the nice lady at the government handout office with earnings from his comeback fights is made right primarily by Crowe’s clean, nonpolitical conviction of gesture. On the other hand, left to their own imaginings, the filmmakers feel compelled to invent a gauzy fictional anti-Braddock, a fellow dockworker and down-and-outer named Mike (In America‘s Paddy Considine) whose own fall, in contrast to his buddy’s, is unbroken: Mike drinks too much, fights with his wife, and gets too caught up in political activism for his own good, taking to the squalid, end-of-hope shanties dubbed Hooverville in New York’s Central Park as his last stand. The attention to Hooverville (a thing worth seeing for young ‘uns, shot with hushed outrage and awe by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who also worked on The Missing) is, at least, educational.

In the end, when all the metaphors for character and spirit and American history fall away, a boxing movie, whether Raging Bull, Rocky, or Million Dollar Baby, is about boxing, and the elemental physical intimacy inside the ropes. And here, Howard comes alive with a directness and excitement that matches what Crowe has been up to all along. The fight that decides the championship is long, painful, and dirty, with punches that sting us as much as they stagger Braddock. Endurance is what counts. Despite a few flashbacks to remember what the common guy is fighting for, it’s all about the body blows. And the best man wins.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Giamatti); Best Film Editing; Best Makeup

Cinderella Man
  • Movie
  • 144 minutes