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'42'Directed by Brian HelgelandStarring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Alan Tudyk, John C. McGinley, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black and Andrew HollandBiography/Drama/Sports128 MinsPG-13
An often feckless biopic milking sentimentality at every turn, 42 may be an inspiring story but it is uninspired filmmaking. When you break through all the pure formula, there’s little to distinguish this from other, greater films which tackle similar territory of an African American underdog rising up in a sporting arena in race-intolerant America. Though a good story is embedded in here somewhere, you’d best bust out the knives because the sap is so thick you’ll have to cut deep to find it.
42 chronicles the true story of Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American major league baseball player, first year playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in deeply segregated 1947. Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) spits in the face of tradition by electing to draft an African-American ballplayer because Harrison Ford says so. Rickey finds the ideal candidate in Robinson, a thick-skinned rookie with a penchant for stealing bases. And where Robinson is truly a maestro at stealing those bases, filmmaker Brian Helgeland doesn’t make off with his blatant attempt to steal some tears.
From the get-go, the pandering score clues us in to the hopeless sentimentality which will dominate the feature. The faux-inspiring, melancholic score is deeply reminiscent of John Williams at his most indulgent, a symphonically-situated-somberness used to play up the audience’s sense of sympathy. But having played this card so early in the game, it's impossible to miss the emotional manipulation oh so conspicuously taking place behind the curtain. Instead of building his house of cards carefully, Helgeland charges full forward into the sobbing mire, never even attempting to woo and court us before he takes us out back to the milk-machine.
Probably the films strongest asset is its talented host of performers. Boseman offers a faithful portrayal of Robinson, balancing his callous and charm with a careful hand. Although, for the star of the film, he sometimes seems a little out of his league. A scene that involves a smashed bat in the shadows may be particularly stirring but it’s one of the few moments where the inner-working of Robinson actually come into the light.
Given the chance to work the comedic relief, Ford offers a fairly slight performance as Branch Rickey. We’re shown that Rickey is a good guy but he’s got very little depth beyond being a kindly subversive figure. His motivations are veiled until a big reveal that didn't stir up the emotional value it thinks it did and as a result, the character suffers. He’s Billy Beane from Moneyball without the palpable, ticking sense of angst and fervent rebellion.
The real winning performances in 42 come from Alan Tudyk, who plays the epitome of a redneck racist and John C. McGinley, the strangely cadenced game day announcer. While most of his fellow actors in the film are playing in safe, Tudyk is tasked with spewing out the most offensive racial slurs he can get his hand on and boy is he effective. Within moments, you want to strangle this dopey-eyed son-of-a-bitch and yet he's so pathetic and lost that you can't help but pity the man.
Although the true story behind the man who wore the number 42 seems dutifully told here, it is all so glossed over that it gets difficult to see straight. The nitpicky details may be covered but the execution is a poor thatch job of benchmarks that settles with reporting the facts rather than weaving them into a thoughtful narrative. Anytime Helgeland attempts to edify us, it just seems like a cheap collage of scenes that hop from Robinson’s recruitment to his ultra-lame marriage proposal to his baby’s birth to his difficult transition into the majors. Since these stepping stones are treated as random asides, they never feel like fundamental additions to the character or his story arc.
The best drama in the film is mined out on the ballfield where Robinson is in his element and the whole production seems at its most comfortable. Out here, there's no trying to pigeon-hole in side narratives or elicit a false emotional response. Like Robinson so often say, they're just here to play ball. It's in these moments that the unspoken acts of racial violence seem the most present and disturbing.
While baseball after baseball are intentionally thrown at his head, Robinson can only summon the strength to be a better man than his ignorant colleagues and it makes it that much more powerful when he knocks one out of the park. In this study of race in baseball, 42 scores but even then Helgeland can't help himself but to slow things down to a slo-mo trot and pan across the audience to random, uplifted black folks and jeering whites again and again and again.
Every time the film looks like it's going to rise to the occasion, it shoots itself in the foot, reading from the book o' cliché. Instead of boldly going where no one has before, it settles with following tradition and leaving the mold as it is. Other films, such as Remember the Titans, have done this story before and hit all the weighty notes without the senseless pandering that takes place here.
Perhaps its greatest asset is also its greatest flaw: an eagerness to please the masses - as its appeal is unapologetically broad. This is drama for the moms and pops, not for the student of subtlety. While I’m sure some would claim that it takes its fair share of risks, those mostly gravitate around its copious use of the n-word: a tired-and-true mine for easy sympathy; a sweeping play for the ‘Aww’s and a cue for the white guilt to kick in. The real risks, however, are left for another day, for another movie, for another audience, as this one is happy picking up the crumbs from every other black-person-playing-sports-back-in-racist-times movie.
At the center of the 42 is a stirring tale of resistance, of character, of will-power and of personal triumph- a Jesus-esque tale of turning the other cheek and growing in spite of it all- but every time these earnest moments show their head, they are quickly degraded by a spewing geyser of soapy sentimentality. Even in the decadent little movements of intimacy, over-sensationalization takes hold and bucks the viewer into a fatiguing stronghold.
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