In his Oscar monologue, Chris Rock warned Hollywood against casting anyone but Russell Crowe in a period piece (''If you doin' a movie about the past, you best to get Russell's ass!''). Ask director Ron Howard whose latest stars Crowe as Depression-era heavyweight champ Jim Braddock how he felt about Rock's words and he's diplomatic. ''Well, uh, I had mixed feelings about the overall bit,'' he says, with a nervous chuckle. ''But the one part I agreed with were his comments about Russell.'' The last time Howard, Crowe, cowriter Akiva Goldsman, and producer Brian Grazer teamed up was on 2001's A Beautiful Mind; toward the end of that shoot, Crowe tipped off the gang to Cliff Hollingsworth's script about an underdog who had nothing going for him but an okay right and a loving family.
Renée Zellweger plays Braddock's faithful wife, Mae, a woman who stood by her man through his darkest hour. ''I think it's a quieter performance than I've ever given,'' she says. ''I love how simple she is. This man was her life. She's desperate to support him in everything that he does, yet at the same time she's terrified and guilty because he's destroying himself in order to provide for them.''
''Bring a hankie,'' advises Grazer. But trust that the happy ending comes from the history books, not the Hollywood machine. Paul Giamatti, who plays Braddock's bigmouthed manager/trainer Joe Gould, sums up the film's appeal best: ''It's about a guy who gets his ass kicked by the world and then finally manages to not get his ass kicked by the world,'' he says. ''That's always nice to watch.''