May 8, 2005
Russell Crowe's Cinderella Story - By DAVID HALBFINGER


LIKE its protagonist, the boxer James J. Braddock Jr., Ron Howard's new movie, "Cinderella Man," enters the ring at something of a competitive disadvantage.

Some are calling it "Seabiscuit" on two legs and wondering if another true-to-life Depression-era underdog tale can possibly do as well. Others ask if another boxing movie with Oscar hopes can succeed after "Million Dollar Baby."

Then there's the utter lack of suspense. If "Million Dollar Baby" cold-cocked filmgoers with a plot twist so jarring it knocked the film into another genre, Mr. Howard's "Cinderella Man" asks audiences to walk into its punches eyes wide open.

Even if you didn't already know that Braddock was once heavyweight champion of the world, or consider that Mr. Howard's movies have happy endings, or grasp the implication of the title, you probably still will have figured out how "Cinderella Man" ends before you pick up your popcorn.

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Howard and the movie's distributor, Universal, are likening "Cinderella Man" to "Apollo 13," Mr. Howard's Oscar-winning 1995 picture about the ill-starred 1970 moon mission: everyone knew the astronauts had made it home alive, but the movie was still a smash.

"What I discovered in both movies was that people would suspend not their disbelief, but that anticipatory part of their brain, and genuinely worry about what the outcome was going to be," Mr. Howard said. "If the emotional connection was vivid enough, then the audience really could feel what it was like to walk in those characters' shoes."

Or as Akiva Goldsman, one of the screenplay's writers, put it: "Fairy tales don't feel like fairy tales to the people that live them. Cinderella herself was having a pretty terrible time."

In "Cinderella Man," which opens June 3, Russell Crowe plays Braddock, the contender from North Bergen, N.J., who breaks his hand and slides into boxing oblivion - and onto the welfare rolls - only to make the unlikeliest of comebacks at the height of the Great Depression, culminating in a June 13, 1935, title bout with Max Baer.

Like "Apollo 13," the film has the added benefit of sticking close to the facts, which even at the time seemed almost too good not to have been scripted.

Mr. Howard said he had learned in "Apollo 13" that "you don't have to reach so far" to create the kind of scenes in which viewers connect with characters. "They don't need things to be dressed up," he said. "In my earlier films, pre-'Apollo 13,' I was inclined to strain a little more to create those moments."

In "Cinderella Man," such moments include one in which Braddock, banned from boxing and defeated in his efforts to support his family, returns to their dark, cold basement apartment and finds that his wife has sent their children away for their safety. And another, moments later, in which the boxer, swallowing his pride, goes hat in hand to the bosses of boxing for the money to reunite his family.

Reaching audiences through such moments is "a little like lightning striking," Mr. Howard said. "You think it goes down and hits the ground. But in fact, the two charges meet, and some of the charge actually comes up from the ground. The audience is ready to do a lot more of the work, and they're capable of doing a lot more than I realized." Unlike "Apollo 13," though, "Cinderella Man," which also stars Renée Zellweger as Braddock's wife and Paul Giamatti as his trainer, turns out to be somewhat political, depicting the salutary effects of welfare at a time when another New Deal cornerstone, Social Security, is a hot topic again.

"I've always been fascinated by the Depression," said Mr. Howard, who grew up hearing his father, Rance Howard, tell stories of the family's subsistence farm in Oklahoma. (The elder Mr. Howard, who plays a ring announcer, became a boxing fan at 7 when his own father drove him to the local pool hall to listen to the Braddock-Baer fight on radio.)

While in high school, Mr. Howard made a 30-minute documentary about the Depression, interviewing his father and others and using old photos.

"What was really shocking to me were the images of poverty in big cities," he said. "Whenever you'd see poor straggling kids with the New York City skyline in the background, or you'd see these men, still dressed in their business suits but standing in a breadline, it was as least as devastating as the Okies with all their stuff packed on a Model T."

In "Cinderella Man," he added, "I wanted to remind people that the working poor existed then, and we have it today. While the economy is mostly up and then sometimes down - the Internet bubble bursting felt a little bit like '29, where people had overextended and fallen into that trap again - we're anxious. Our population is anxious. We're not in a depression, thank God, but I think it's crossing our minds that something could happen, things could change, and not for the better, for the worse."

Braddock's own politics allowed for a movie that, like much of Mr. Howard's work, hews close to an idealized American middle ground: after accepting relief, the boxer paid back the government. "As much as it ate at him, it saved his family," Mr. Howard said. "It's this kind of harmony, in a way, between a governmental system that would offer support, and a population that wouldn't exploit it."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company