Review: Hollywood Sadly Falls Short of Real-Life Inspiration with '42'
by Jeremy Kirk
April 12, 2013
And here's to you, Jackie Robinson. A feature film showing how you shirked the system, stood up to segregation, and took the baseball field despite masses screaming that you didn't belong. But 42, the film in question about the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, is uninspired for a story about such an inspirational character. Basic principal carries the story part way, and a lead performance that brings out genuine emotion helps. Unfortunately, 42 plays in too standard of a ballpark for this game, and though Robinson's story has never been told on this grand of a stage, it's just all too familiar. More below!
Chadwick Boseman gives that emotionally stirring performance as Robinson, but it's Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, team executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who we get introduced to first. Rickey is a business savvy fellow, always chomping on a cigar and growling about God and baseball. Seemingly out of the blue one day, Rickey decides he needs an African-American on the team, that he recognizes their talents, and that he sees the entire business headed down that direction one day. He also sees the dollar signs on such an endeavor.
Enter Robinson, hard-headed short stop playing in the Negro leagues who finds himself at the kind end to Rickey's idea. Knowing the hardships and stress he is about to receive from not only the crowd and the opposing players, but from his own team, Robinson accepts. Thus begins a steady stream of racist, verbal bites, cutting digs that would make Tarantino uncomfortable, and a general discomfort from this new world Robinson has set foot in. The man stands strong, and with Rickey always at his side to guide Robinson down the path of the better man, he perseveres. Pretty electrifying, yes?
Unfortunately, no. Brian Helgeland writes and directs what ultimately feels like a shell of the man's life. Yes, the basic steps are there, and every sign that says Whites Only and racial slur out of the mouths of ignorant white men and women (yes, even children) comes right along with it. There's never a sense of what deeper subtext Helgeland is striving for here. To simply show the inspiring story of what this man did may work if it isn't so documented. At this stage of familiarity, the Jackie Robinson story deserves something deeper, more mentally engaging since the emotional side of it is pretty much covered.
Helgeland settles for the emotion, though, shading every frame with soft light and bringing composer Mark Isham's score up ever so slightly in the last third of just about every scene. That card can be played only so many times before it's lost all meaning, and 42's emotion gets lost under a forced weight early on. Helgeland brings a steady eye to his baseball scenes, but the drama is never there. Every hit ball looks like a home run until it's either caught or goes over the fence, and even though all the outside, bigoted noise is supposed to be getting Robinson down when he's at bat, it still seems like a crap shoot on whether he hits or not.
The real drama of 42 is left to be felt from its actors, Boseman front and center as the man responsible for taking on this iconic role. The newcomer delivers, never letting an obvious action or reaction slip into his performance. The time or two Robinson is allowed to explode in Helgeland's screenplay, Boseman handles himself sufficiently, making the breaking of a bat against a brick wall feel like the true explosion of rage that it is. Boseman leads, but Harrison Ford shambles along as Branch Rickey at his oldest and grouchiest. That's what Ford is best as these days, and it's no wonder why he was chosen for the part. There may be some emotion to get out of the veteran actor, yet, but Helgeland sure doesn't find it.
The rest of the cast is littered with decent turns by fine character actors. John C. McGinley and Christopher Meloni play for the fences as an announcer and the Dodgers' manager, respectively. Nicole Beharie plays one-note love interest with her own level of passion, creating a character of interest based on performance alone. Alan Tudyk is always a welcome sight, but as the flagrantly racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, he brings a discomfort to a rather prolonged subplot in the middle. Guess what. It deals with racism.
It's not that the Jackie Robinson story is so familiar that it can't work as a feature film in 2013. It's not even that the race card has been played out in today's Hollywood. On the contrary, a weighty, emotionally resonating depiction of what Jackie Robinson overcame would be a very welcome project. Unfortunately, 42 tries and tries and tries, but can only muster a faint glimmer of the inspiration the real man pulled off. Once again, the movies try to live up to real life, but this legend is still far too big. At least the real Jackie Robinson isn't forgotten.
Jeremy's Rating: 4 out of 10