Dir:Ron Howard. US. 2005. 144mins.

Beautifullycrafted and emotionally uplifting, Cinderella Man reunites ABeautiful Mind star Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard to tell the trueDepression-era story of underdog American boxing champ Jim Braddock. It's aprime example of the kind of rousing melodrama that Hollywood, when it's nottrying to lure teens with special effects extravaganzas, can still do supremelywell. And it steps into the ring of the US summer season not just as apotential counter-programming hit but also as the first major contender for2005 Oscar recognition.

Universalreleases the Imagine Entertainment production in the domestic market on June 3,hoping that, like July release Seabiscuit two years ago, CinderellaMan can attract the slightly older audiences underserved by the rest of thesummer release schedule. With the star power of Crowe and female lead ReneeZellweger (whose recent showbiz marriage won't hurt publicity-wise) behind itthe film should be capable, even with a two-and-a-half-hour running time, of astrong and sustained US box office run.

BuenaVista is handling international distribution for Universal's partner Miramaxand in many markets will open the film in the kind of autumn slots more usuallyassociated with classy awards contenders. Crowe and Zellweger will be even moreimportant to the film's fortunes outside the US, where their appeal should makeup for the American subject matter and somewhat American themes.

Therunning time is the result of a script, by first timer Cliff Hollingsworth andveteran Akiva Goldsman (also part of the Oscar-winning team from A BeautifulMind), which takes its time telling the story, though usually withjustification.

Thestory opens during the Jazz Age of the late twenties, when the scrappy, workingclass Braddock is a rising boxing star who nevertheless shuns the glamour ofManhattan to go home after a fight to his loyal wife Mae (Zellweger) and thecouple's three young kids in New Jersey. Soon, however, the story jumps ahead afew years to find an injured Braddock getting kicked out of boxing andstruggling to support his family as the Depression takes hold of America.

Thefilm's first hour paints a bleak but very convincing picture of everyday familylife during the Depression and it culminates in a wrenching scene that shows adesperate Braddock going to beg change from his former supporters in the boxingestablishment. The effectiveness of the first act is heightened by outstandingdesign work from Wynn Thomas (another Beautiful Mind alumnus) andcinematography by Salvatore Totino (who shot Howard's The Missing).

Themood begins to brighten when Braddock, under-nourished and still nursing oldinjuries, is offered what he thinks is a one-off fight. Though Mae initiallyobjects to the idea, the fight lets the family pay off its debts and leads toan unlikely comeback that turns Braddock into an inspirational working classhero.

Howardgives the film's second act a more conventional feel than the first - thetraining montage with an Irish music soundtrack is disappointingly predictable- but he avoids overplaying the connection between Braddock and the chaoticsociety around him. Though it clearly does use Braddock to symbolize theAmerican character and the struggle against poverty, the film emphasises thatfor the modest and decent fighter boxing is now not about glamour or heroismbut about feeding his once almost starving family.

Thefight sequences - a handful of key bouts are documented at some length - areexciting though not particularly original. Howard makes use of point-of-view,overhead and circling shots and builds atmosphere with devices like ringsidecommentary and exploding flashbulbs. The boxing action itself is effectivelybrutal, a fact which might put off a few moviegoers (the pugilism mostlyaccounts for the film's PG-13 US rating).

Theclimax comes with the half-hour depiction of Braddock's biggest fight, a 1935slugging match against towering and frighteningly aggressive champion Max Baer(Bierko). Braddock's story is not well known outside boxing circles, so formany moviegoers the excitement of this climactic fight sequence will beundiluted by knowledge of how the real fight ended.

Perhapsthe film's major weakness is that it leaves very little room for the developmentof characters other than Braddock's. Mae's loyalty to her husband is brieflytested a couple of times but for most of the story she stands by her man inspite of her anxiety about the injuries boxing might inflict. And Jim's managerJoe (Giamatti, in his first appearance since Sideways) helps change thecourse of the story but is otherwise a one-dimensionally likeable presence.

Notsurprisingly, then, it is Crowe's performance that dominates. As written,Braddock may not be a particularly complex character for an actor to get togrips with, but Crowe still deserves credit for a terrific performance in whichhe inhabits the role physically as well as emotionally

Theperformance will certainly be one thing that draws attention to the film whenawards season comes around, though Howard's deft direction might also getsupport from some awards voters. The film's early release date - and perhapsits superficial similarity to last year's big Oscar winner Million DollarBaby - could be a handicap, though it will probably lead to a DVD launchcoinciding nicely with the start of awards season.

Universal Pictures
Miramax Films
Imagine Entertainment


Buena Vista International

Todd Hallowell

Brian Grazer
Ron Howard
Penny Marshall

Cliff Hollingsworth
Akiva Goldsman

Salvatore Totino

Wynn Thomas

Mike Hill
Dan Hanley

Daniel Orlandi

Thomas Newman

Russell Crowe
Renee Zellweger
Paul Giamatti
Craig Bierko
Paddy Considine
Bruce McGill
Ron Canada