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‘Cinderella Man’ has a knockout finish

The story of underdog Irish-American boxer James Braddock. By John Hartl

The last time Russell Crowe, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman worked together, the result was “A Beautiful Mind.” Their latest collaboration, “Cinderella Man,” may not sweep the Academy Awards as “Mind” did three years ago, but it’s respectable, watchable and sometimes more than that.

The deftly extended finale, a boxing match set in mid-1930s Madison Square Garden, is as tense and exciting as anything Howard has directed. Crowe plays James Braddock, an underdog Irish-American fighter from New Jersey. Craig Bierko is the arrogant heavyweight champion, Max Baer. Even if you know the outcome, the battle between Crowe’s working-class hero and Bierko’s button-pushing bully is filled with surprises and suspense.

The rest of this absorbing drama may suffer from an overly glossy approach to the miseries of the Depression (“Seabiscuit” appears to have been an influence), but all is forgiven whenever Crowe steps into the ring. He transforms Braddock from a mere contender into a man whose family’s survival depends on his training and ability to endure.

Wonderful as Crowe is, the movie is even more of a showcase for Paul Giamatti, who gives everything he’s got to the role of Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, who believes passionately in his man. Passed over at the Oscars for “Sideways” and “American Splendor,” Giamatti seems a shoo-in for a nomination this time.

He delivers what may be the definitive portrait of a show-biz promoter of limited resources who keeps up a brave front, pretending to be well-off when he’s really destitute and placing all his bets on one iffy prospect. His faith in his client is deeply touching, and when it pays off, his exuberance feels truly earned. Giamatti communicates uncompromised joy; he nearly blows away everyone else in the picture.

Braddock’s boxing career went through several up-and-down extremes before the Madison Square Garden event, and the script by Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth doesn’t brighten the low points. Penniless and unable to work efficiently because of a broken hand, Braddock frightens his wife (Renee Zellweger) into sending their children away to relatives’ homes because they can’t afford to pay the heating bills.

A close friend and would-be union organizer (Paddy Considine) ends up in Central Park’s Hooverville, and for awhile things couldn’t look bleaker. When Braddock’s luck turns, Gould is there to capitalize on it, eventually arranging the bout with Baer, whose reputation as a killer nearly intimidates Braddock’s wife into leaving him.

Zellweger and Considine do what they can with their roles, but there’s a one-note quality to them. In Zellweger’s case, this appears to be the way the character was conceived. With Considine, however, key scenes seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor.

For a big movie that runs nearly two and a half hours, “Cinderella Man” sometimes feels underpopulated. Howard and his writers appear to have decided to downplay the supporting characters and rely on the fight scenes to carry the drama. For the most part, and especially toward the end, it works.