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Cinderella Man

When 25 percent of Americans were jobless during the Depression, Jim Braddock made a nation cheer. Cinderella Man is not a movie about boxing, but about this boxer who personified the heart and hope of 1935.

Although the "Bulldog of Bergen," as the Jersey pug was also nicknamed, roared through the '20s, in 1929 he tumbled quicker than the stock market. Hands and spirits broken, he scrambled for work as a day laborer to support his wife and three children. In movie terms, Braddock was Seabiscuit - a nose away from the glue factory.

If Braddock's improbable comeback is the core of Ron Howard's exhilarating film, Russell Crowe is its juicy apple. The actor's stinging simplicity and quiet urgency recall Spencer Tracy at his humblest and most titanic.

Crowe's gravity is relieved by Paul Giamatti as wisecracking manager Joe Gould, a hard-boiled egg in a plaid suit. And he is ably abetted by Renee Zellweger as the fighter's scrappy helpmeet, Mae, equal parts Betty Crocker and Betty Boop - that is to say, a kewpie doll who cooks.

However tempting it is to dub him the "Raging Bulldog," Crowe's Jim Braddock is anything but. This fighter is a man who can't control the economy or his kids but can control himself.

According to the film, even when the broken-down boxer could not afford to maintain his pride, he retained his decency: Reduced to begging nickels from boxing promoters, Braddock makes his hungry son return a stolen salami. He accepts welfare, but returns every penny when he can.

Despite the fairy-tale title (a moniker thrust on the reluctant Braddock by sportswriter Damon Runyon) Cinderella Man is the dun color of smudge and soot and sweat, thanks to the understated art direction of Wynn Thomas and cinematography of Salvatore Totino. Director Howard may be a silver-lining kind of guy, but this time out, in his most ambitious film as well as his most fully realized, he doesn't shrink from the cloud.

His film's subdued tone has the effect of deglamorizing the era more often celebrated for its fashion and music (see Seabiscuit and The Aviator) than for the perseverance and determination of people like Braddock.

Drawn to American profiles in courage like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, Howard invests Braddock with the bedrock virtues of self-reliance and parental fortitude, values that resonate across the political and social spectrum. Most boxing movies use the ring as a metaphor. Rocky and Million Dollar Baby are about nobodies fighting to become somebodies; The Great White Hope and Ali are about black champions fighting white prejudice. This one is about an unassuming guy fighting to put food on the breakfast table.

The conventional wisdom is that Howard is a sentimentalist who needs Crowe to give his films edge. I prefer to think of the director as one in the handful of Hollywood filmmakers who still know how to make mass entertainment not based on a comic book.

As with A Beautiful Mind, Howard will probably be accused of sanitizing Braddock's story. The boxer was not quite the angelic family man as he's shown here. (He owned a speakeasy and did, at one point, farm out his kids to relatives.)

Nor was his ring adversary Max Baer (played by a ferociously charismatic Craig Bierko) quite as diabolical as screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth would have us believe.

I don't look to movies for biographical accuracy (if I did, then I would have to put disclaimers on The Aviator, Ray and Hotel Rwanda); I look to them for biographical drama. In this, Cinderella Man excels.

That the movie packs such an emotional wallop is largely due to Crowe, who digs deeper into himself with every movie and takes us with him. In a movieland of eternal boys like Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks, Crowe is the man in more ways than one.