42 (2013) 4/10
Recruited by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues.
It’s almost insane, the amount of potential this film had. Jackie Robinson’s story is compelling and heroic. Baseball has long been movie language for the American Dream, for inspiration, and for hope; some of cinema’s most lyrical films have used baseball to express a larger truth. There’s certainly a trend in movies now to depict racism of the past, from The Help to Django Unchained to The Butler, maybe because it’s easier to look at than the present, while still acknowledging how pervasive the issue is for audiences. Kind of like science fiction analogies for modern-day problems, a story like Jackie Robinson’s lets us feel good about the strides we’ve made as a culture while still sitting us squarely inside the experience of racism.
Unfortunately, 42 fails as a movie. It does so many things wrong that it serves almost as a primer on what not to do when making a movie. It’s over two hours long (and feels like three), and none of that length is justified, especially since relatively little of Robinson’s story is told. Here the filmmakers avoid the classic biopic error: The compulsion to tell a whole life. Call it the Ray error: Early childhood “explains” adulthood, step-by-step, moment by moment, cradle to grave. I’m rolling my eyes just typing it. 42 gives us Jackie Robinson from the time he’s recruited by the Dodgers through his first season of play: A clean segment of time that should have given the film room to breathe.
But little else about the film works. The movie is full of “tell” rather than “show,” with dialogue-heavy scenes that hammer home a message without much content besides “Racism is wrong” and “turn the other cheek.” We end up with little knowledge of Jackie the man, and no knowledge at all of Rachel Robinson besides “supportive wife.” Nicole Beharie doesn’t have a long resumé, but why bother casting a better-known actress in such an empty role?
Scenes are overplayed to the point of camp. How does Rachel Robinson learn she’s pregnant? Well, first there’s a moment when she feels inexplicably nauseated. THEN she goes to the ladies room and discusses how she feels with a stranger. Who THEN tells her she might be pregnant. THEN there’s a long look in the mirror. THEN we see a baby in a maternity ward with a caption reading “8 months later.” The nausea cliché and a cut to the maternity ward (without the caption) would have told the whole thing, but apparently writer/director Brian Helgeland is convinced the audience is very stupid indeed. It seems like every scene plays out with that same plodding commitment to strike Every. Single. Note. Usually with a musical cue at the end to make sure we know how we’re supposed to feel. It’s all incredibly lifeless.
There are a lot of familiar character actors here, mostly from TV, but they don’t add as much as they should. Alan Tudyk is the exception. His portrayal of viciously racist Philly’s manager Ben Chapman is staggering. He’s baldly and relentlessly nasty in a way that commands attention. The Chapman scenes, too, are dragged on, but Tudyk makes them shine.
I also question the casting of Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. The real Jackie Robinson was a heavy, solid man who also played football. Boseman’s build is slight and lithe, and seems to be in the “non-threatening person of color” mode. It’s not like he’s a brilliant actor or anything.
We really had high hopes for this movie. We saw bits of it on a plane and were excited to sit down and watch it On Demand. I wish the experience had rewarded our faith. Or our $4.99.