Film Review: 42

by Chad Liffmann on April 12, 2013

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42.

In 1947, the baseball world was introduced to the first black Major League player, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson.  This momentous occasion in the history of our national pastime (and the world, quite arguably), was met with mixed feelings from all points of the sociopolitical spectrum. 42 aims to capture the tension and excitement that surrounded the breaking of the baseball color barrier, but a hokey script forces the emotion in this disappointing and awkward historical re-enactment.

A quick glance at the filmography of 42 writer/director Brian Helgeland supports a case that his writing abilities (when it’s his only credited task) far surpass his abilities behind the camera.  He penned the screenplays for Mystic River, Man on Fire, Robin Hood and L.A. Confidential (for which he was awarded the best adapted screenplay Oscar alongside director Curtis Hanson).  His directorial list, on the other hand, contains the underwhelming yet campy titles: Payback, A Knight’s Tale, and The Order.  Like the titles on the latter list, 42 has a great story to tell but fails in its execution.

Though somewhat misleadingly subtitled “The True Story of An American Legend” due to its considerable time spent instead on Harrison Ford’s character (Dodgers owner Branch Rickey), 42 does attempt to trace Robinson’s rise from the Negro Leagues through the minor leagues and finally to stardom in the majors through depictions of some well chronicled events.  These events are interspersed with intimate scenes of two characters trying to inspire one another to embrace the greater good using overly dramatic one-liners.  The film doesn’t arrive at a significant conflict until beyond the halfway point.  Until that instance, in which the Philadelphia Phillies manager (played by Firefly alum Alan Tudyk) tosses out a storm of verbal abuse during Robinson’s at-bats, all the bumps in Robinson’s road to greatness are quelled abruptly or gently brushed aside.

Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson) is a talented actor, having played an assortment of supporting roles on television including appearances on Justified and Fringe. Along with his clear physical likeness to Robinson, he appears to be yearning for more character complexity.  Either Robinson is angry at someone or he’s grinning like a hyena as he steals his way from base to base.  There’s no emotional depth behind his actions.  After all, the film doesn’t provide a backstory so it just plays out that he’s reacting wholly to what he sees next.  Perhaps the filmmakers decided that audiences would already be familiar with the Jackie Robinson story, so why bother.  Just give us a story comprised of chronologically-ordered inspirational vignettes and we’ll be happy.  At times I couldn’t even tell if the characters were bringing their experience from prior scenes into the ensuing scenes, sort of a key ingredient to strong character arcs.

A very welcome sight is Harrison Ford.  Grumbling obscenities and waddling to and fro, Ford seems to be embracing a chance to play…well…not Harrison Ford.  It’s a Mr. Ed meets Robert Redford performance that would’ve made the late character actor Charles Durning proud.  Redford was, in fact, originally considered for the role.  Ford is obviously having fun, is invested in the story, and commands the screen in both comical and dramatic fashion.  He is the film’s most redeeming quality, and also the film’s most complete character.

Despite its shortcomings (and there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments – a handful involving subpar child actors), 42 ends up serving the function of a quick history lesson, albeit a glossy one.  For youngsters (there were a couple Little League teams in full uniform in attendance for the viewing), the film does a decent job of supplying an entertaining underdog story.  It may even compel some young players to have greater appreciation for the sport with the knowledge that baseball headlines weren’t always a matter of dollar signs and substance abuse claims.  Strip away some of the stronger curse words and 42 doesn’t stray too far from a Sunday night TV movie, worthy of our brief attention.  For adults and longtime baseball fans, however, the rich historic tale of Jackie Robinson still deserves a more worthy retelling.

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42 opens in Bay Area theaters today.

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