42 proves an important theory on biopics: a historical figure can be too significant for the Hollywood treatment.
Jackie Robinson's impact on baseball and race relations in the United States was monumental and writer/director Brian Helgeland's adaptation of the athlete's life goes to great lengths to drive that home. Chronicling most of Robinson's early career, where he quickly jumped from playing in the Negro leagues to the minor leagues to the majors, 42 ham-fists the big picture into Robinson's astonishing climb to success. It lauds Robinson as a Christ-like figure instead of painting him as a human overcoming great odds. The movie demonstrates that Robinson was driven by his love of the game, not a mission of integration. Early in his career, he says to a colleage, ''I'm just a ball player.'' The man replies, ''No, you're a hero.'' There's no denying the man was right, but the movie plays out from his point of view rather than putting us in Robinson's cleats. 42 is a glossy treatment that never gets beyond the text book reading.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson, plucked from obscurity by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to become the first African-American baseball player in the Major Leagues. The road to acceptance is expectedly bumpy: Robinson starts at the Dodgers training camp where he's hazed by teammates and townspeople alike. Rickey keeps him in check with routine inspirational speeches, all boiling down to keeping his temper in check and ears turned off to racist remarks. Ignoring the ignorance comes easy to Robinson, miraculous in historical context but making the action 42 a tedious affair. It's one scene after another of Robinson holding strong against white opposition and breaking boundaries with pure talent. Staged in a strangely claustrophobic and theatrical fashion, the movie lacks a necessary fire, even when Boseman, Ford, and Nicole Beharie as Jackie's wife Rachel, are firing on all cylinders.
42 has a lot of filler, with every actor in the ensemble getting their moment of bigotry and subsequent reversal, along with scenes that seemingly go nowhere (an extended scene between Rachel and a babysitter signals danger for Jackie's son, but fails to impact the story). But every didactic stretch of race drama is made up for by one intense scene, perfectly orchestrated by Helgeland on every level. In a game against Philadelphia, Robinson is verbally harassed by Phillies player manager Ben Chapman. Actor Alan Tudyk bravely inhabits the vile role, spewing every racial slur and wisecrack under the sun as Robinson attempts to cope. It's a tremendous sequence that pushes Robinson to his breaking point, a moment with enough drama to sustain an entire movie, as opposed to being the pinnacle of an overwrought life story.
There's a fakeness to 42 that overshadows the performances, with '40s baseball scenes enhanced by CG backdrops and a swelling score by Mark Isham that uses traditional violins and trumpets to force emotion down our throats. Robinson, and Boseman as a capable performing bringing him to life, can live on his own, but Helgeland insists on echoing the inherent drama of the ball player's story with Hollywood pizazz. From the film's first minutes, found documentary footage from the early '40s accompanied by voice over from Robinson's personal mythologist, reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), 42 is factory-made biopic. A lively ensemble keep it afloat with Ford's gruff muttering working for Rickey, and T.R. Knight, Hamish Linklater, and Christopher Meloni add a dash of comedic flavor to the droll history lesson. But this is Jackie Robinson! A man whose story deserves a home run, not a bunt. Showing him as a ball player, not a hero, would have knocked 42 out of the park.
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