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MOVIE REVIEW

Heavy hitter

Moving 'Cinderella Man' sets a boxer's comeback against a backdrop of despair

Maybe it was all that Opie time on ''The Andy Griffith Show," but Ron Howard has always had a streak of Norman Rockwell in him -- a trust in the gritty pieties of faith, family, and personal re-invention in which the American myth is rooted. Howard's inner Rockwell finally comes out of the closet with ''Cinderella Man," after years of flirtations (''Apollo 13") and backing away (''The Missing"), and the result is a broad, foursquare piece of populist filmmaking that happens to be tremendously moving.

If you're the sort of occasional moviegoer who feels they don't make 'em like they used to -- well, you're right. Except that Howard and Russell Crowe have just proved you wrong.

It's a boxing film, and one in the classic mold -- closer to a fusion of ''Rocky" and ''Seabiscuit" than ''Raging Bull" or anything Clint Eastwood was up to in ''Million Dollar Baby" -- but it also immerses a viewer in the terrible, grinding poverty of the Great Depression. The true story of James J. Braddock (Crowe), a heavyweight contender and gentle family man whose career peaked early and crashed with the stock market in the late 1920s, it's a comeback saga so unbelievable that it had to have happened more or less like this.

Yet a palpable sense of despair sucks any feel-good simple-mindedness out of the film. People die in the streets of ''Cinderella Man," and in the ring, too. One heads into the final rounds dreadfully unsure where it will end, and that's a testament to both Howard's skill and his conviction.

It's also because we've seen how low Braddock and his family can sink, while understanding that millions of people are sinking lower. When his oldest boy (Connor Price) steals a salami from a store, the father makes him return it, quietly chiding him that ''there are others worse off than what we are." This is just before the gas and electricity get turned off in the dead of winter; a single, eloquent shot of a sleeping child's steaming breath is all the movie needs to convey parental panic.

By 1934, Braddock is working the New Jersey docks -- or, rather, standing with hundreds of other dour-faced men outside the gates, hoping for work. There's an awful scene in which the boxer goes to the old Madison Square Garden and beards the fight men in their smoky den, begging for a handout -- the moment aches with shame and necessity. Then his old manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) appears with a one-time offer: A boxer has dropped out of a match with an up-and-coming heavyweight, $250, win or lose. ''For $250, I'd fight your wife," Braddock responds.

When he steps back into the ring, the radio announcer snorts that ''it looks like they dug old Jim Braddock up," and the dreamy, smiling look on Crowe's face is inscrutable. Is he taking one last look at the crowd before they turn away forever? Or is he grinning because he knows they're about to be shocked? ''Cinderella Man" charts the course of the comeback step by step, fight by fight, gauging the growing fascination of the press and the public, but it makes clear that the boxer never had a game plan. Every extra inch, however temporary, is a gift to a man who can say, ''At least I know what's hitting me."

The writer Damon Runyon coined the nickname ''Cinderella Man," and Howard leans overly hard on Braddock's inspirational meaning to the man in the street. He cranks up the villainy of defending heavyweight champion Max Baer, played by Craig Bierko as a preening, pomaded instrument of death, and he milks the boxing sequences -- shot with an in-your-face immediacy that owes a lot to Scorsese -- for all they're worth.

Worse, the movie paints Renee Zellweger into a corner of sour-faced hand-wringing. The actress plays Braddock's wife, Mary, as a pillar of little-woman pluck; she stands by her man and worries he won't come home and never rises above cliche. I don't know which screenwriter, Cliff Hollingsworth or Akiva Goldsman, is responsible for her line, ''You are the champion of my heart, James J. Braddock," but Zellweger deserves to take a couple of pops at both of them for it.

But this is a love story between men, as boxing movies tend to be, and the relationship between Braddock and his manager is intensely affecting, full of bluff and bravado and early-talkies vinegar. If Giamatti wins a supporting Oscar for this, as he deserves to, it won't be a make-good for this year's ''Sideways" oversight. In his hands, Joe Gould becomes a quintessentially 1930s mixture of pep and desperation -- Giamatti bears an uncanny resemblance here to the old character actor Ned Sparks -- and he, more than anyone in the movie, understands the tension between greed and hope that drives professional boxing. ''We both know the name of this game," he says to a fat-cat boxing promoter (Bruce McGill), ''and it sure as hell ain't pugilism."

As for Crowe, would Jim Braddock be as interesting if he were played by anyone else? I doubt it. Movie nobility too easily turns self-congratulatory, but Crowe has the physical bulk to make a believable palooka, and he gives grace and edge to the character's innate decency. Asked by a reporter what he's fighting for this time around, Braddock replies, ''Milk," and the actor conveys both the confidence behind the statement and the gnawing fear. ''Cinderella Man" re-creates a time when that fear was the governing emotion of American daily life, and says it was possible, with luck and gumption, to fight back. It's the beautiful lie our movies have always handed us -- only this time it's true.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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