Russell Crowe and Paul Giamatti in Cinderella ManCINDERELLA MAN

Every time Hollywood releases a prestigious drama between June and August - Saving Private Ryan, The Road to Perdition, Seabiscuit - a big deal is made about whether audiences are "ready" for weightier fare in the summer months, as if the movie-going public, en masse, annually says, "But it's summer vacation! I don't want to think!" To my mind, this question of "Will audiences show up?" is a mostly pointless one, because (1) these movies don't expect you to think much, and (2) they generally go on to earn a bundle, having cornered the market on cineplex heft.

The American period drama has become as much a summertime staple as the action blockbuster with a Roman numeral in its title or the CGI-animated family comedy. And while a little gravitas served with our annual menu of junk food is welcome, most summertime dramas are, in their way, as commercially, aggressively hyped as anything featuring Batman or Spider-Man. (You just won't see any Road to Perdition Happy Meals.) With their eyes on the Oscars and critics genuflecting on their behalf, movies of this ilk have their own built-in P.R.; the implication seems to be: You'd better appreciate this dramatic artistry now, because you're not getting more anytime soon.

Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, which details the fall and rise of professional boxer James J. Braddock, is this season's helping of Oscar bait, and its publicity doesn't let you forget it for a moment, proudly touting the contributions of Academy Award winners Howard, Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, producer Brian Grazer, and co-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. (You half-expect the trailers to intone, "And for your consideration ... Paul Giamatti.") As a root-for-the-underdog crowd-pleaser, Cinderella Man isn't bad; it does its job efficiently, and is blessed by a spectacular performance by Crowe and a wonderfully entertaining one by Giamatti, both of whom make the movie play far better than it deserves to. But I found the movie almost worthless as an actual drama, for the same reason I'm bothered by so many Ron Howard productions: It's based on a true story, and I didn't believe a minute of it.

By way of explaining why, let me tell you about Mike Wilson. As the film begins at the tail end of the 1920s, Braddock (Crowe) is a successful professional boxer, yet once the Depression hits, he's forced to feed his family through occasional work shifts at the docks. There he meets Mike Wilson (Paddy Consadine). In his first scene, Wilson comes to grudgingly respect Braddock. In his second, he has become Braddock's best friend and a public drunkard who verbally abuses his wife. In his third, after a falling out with Braddock, Wilson and his fellow barflies find renewed purpose as they proudly cheer their hero during a bout heard via radio. And in his fourth, Wilson dies broken and impoverished in a Hooverville, a victim of the too-cruel early-'30s.

Now I have no idea whether Mike Wilson actually existed or not, and it doesn't much matter; movies are supposed to suggest life, not be life. But Howard and screenwriters Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth use Wilson as such an obvious, all-purpose dramatic convention that he becomes something of a joke. His character conveniently changes whenever the filmmakers need someone to remind us of what the American people were going through in the '30s - now he's broken down, now he's lifted up - and he only exists as a counterpoint to Braddock's riches-to-rags-to-riches hero; Mike Wilson suffers and dies so Braddock doesn't have to.

The whole of Cinderella Man is similarly simplistic. Goldsman's and Hollingsworth's script is achingly expository - the film seems geared to people who have never heard of the Great Depression - and most of it consists of sound bites in place of dialogue; there are plenty of "This time I know what I'm fighting for" speeches. And the director revels in the shameless sentimentality. There's no moment too saccharine for Ron Howard; the sequence in which Braddock makes his son return a stolen salami would be moving if you weren't aware of how grossly Howard was manipulating your emotions. (Composer Thomas Newman does his share of manipulating, too; the score is like his Angels in America soundtrack as performed by a jug band.) There are no gray areas in a Ron Howard film - there's merely Good and Evil, and that polarity makes it impossible to view onscreen events as anything resembling real life. Cinderella Man is so busy reminding you how touching its tale is that I, for one, started to grow resentful. (Ron Howard no longer makes motion pictures. He only makes Best Pictures.)

Somehow, Russell Crowe damn near makes the movie work. He's so focused, charismatic, and truthfully touching that he makes even the most mawkish of scenes play like Greek tragedy; when Braddock goes, hat in hand, to Madison Square Garden to beg for money, Crowe's combination of humility and stomach-tightening desperation sticks with you far more than any of Howard's overtly tear-inducing gestures. It's a large-scale, beautifully controlled performance, and thankfully, Paul Giamatti, as manager Joe Gould, is there to match Crowe scene for scene. Gould hasn't been written with much depth, but Giamatti makes him such a vibrant life force that the film is unimaginable without him. Gould's connection with Braddock is infused with hard-won respect and even love, and their routines give Cinderella Man a healthy, much-needed dose of comedy. No actor has ever gotten more mileage out of the exclamation "Je-sus!" than Paul Giamatti.

As for Renee Zellweger, though, she might have finally run out of tricks in her arsenal. Stuck with predictably plaintive "Don't go into the ring again, Jimmy" lines, and with her face crunched in a perpetual snit, Zellweger makes the tiresome role of the faithful-but-fretting wife more tiresome than usual, and the actress doesn't seem connected to either Crowe's Braddock or her onscreen kids; she's doing Roxie Hart without the musical-comedy pizazz, and her every tearful moment grinds the movie to a halt.

To be fair, Ron Howard has become an efficient craftsman; he comes through with clever visual touches - such as the shot of Max Baer (a cartoonishly nasty Craig Bierko) coming to intimidating life in a photograph - and Cinderella Man's boxing sequences have snap and tension. But his eye is, as ever, too consciously directed on the audience. Howard is so eager for our approval that he waters down everything that's potentially divisive or ugly in his material, and Braddock has been fashioned as so unspeakably noble that he barely registers as human. Cinderella Man isn't designed as a drama so much as a summer blockbuster in period attire, which, financially, was probably wise; the film displays such a lack of subtlety and nuance that it's all but guaranteed to be a smash. In the end, I'm not bothered that Ron Howard wanted to make a Rocky. I'm bothered that Ron Howard wound up making a Rocky II.

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