Of all the actor-director teams in Hollywood, few seem more improbable than Russell Crowe and Ron Howard. Whatever the chemistry between the mild-mannered man formerly known as "Opie" and the superstar brute prone to violent public outbursts, it works splendidly in their latest effort, the sweet-natured yet bone-crushing Depression Era underdog boxing saga Cinderella Man.

The film opens with a sedate lap-of-luxury sequence that neatly introduces its trio of main characters. While Jersey prizefighter Jim Braddock (Crowe) counts out his cash after his latest bout at Madison Square Garden, his wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) dotes on their three adorable-moppet children, and his trainer Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) looks forward to future match-ups. In one elegant, understated cut, Howard flashes forward four years to the height of the Depression, where Jim and Mae now attempt to scrape together a living in their dank hovel of an apartment. Howard is careful not to rush these scenes; you get the full scope of their poverty, even if it’s still a pretty, tastefully art-directed sort of poverty (i.e., no pissing in the streets of this slum).

Reduced to begging from his former promoters, Jim is chosen as a last-minute replacement for a fight in which he’s all but destined to be knocked out. "This is not a comeback," Joe warns him, words that should ring false to anyone familiar with Hollywood boxing movies. True to the genre, Jim begins a meteoric rise through the ranks of ’30s heavyweights until he faces his biggest challenge, the flamboyant Max Baer (Craig Bierko), known as much for his clownish personality as he was for causing grievous brain damage in the ring. Will Jim back out of the fight? Will he rescue his family from the breadline? As far as Big Questions go, that’s about it for this tale.

To say Cinderella Man is simplistic isn’t necessarily a criticism; unlike Howard and Crowe’s overrated Oscar-winner A Beautiful Mind, you don’t get the feeling they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. These are mostly inarticulate, working-class characters, and Crowe and Zellweger smartly underplay the script’s few speeches and Oscar-baiting moments in favor of intimate, mostly physical interactions that the director refuses to overemphasize with a misty-eyed, overbearing score. Mae and Jim practically ooze virtue from their pores, but they never become insufferable clichés; the same can be said for Giamatti’s Joe, who in a lesser actor’s hands would become a chirpy source of lame comic relief.

Better still, the irony that someone as sweet as Jim could be so tenacious in the boxing ring is not lost on Howard, who shows a skill and proficiency in the action scenes that’s unlike anything he’s ever done. Using split-second freeze frames and perfectly judged edits, he offers a you-are-there view of the sport that’s intensely personal and vicariously thrilling. To watch Crowe dance around the ring in slow motion during Jim’s first comeback fight — bruised, drooling and grinning wildly — bloodlust has never looked so benevolent.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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