Film Review: ‘42’

A relentlessly formulaic biopic that transforms one of the most compelling sports narratives of the 20th century into a home run of hagiography

The Jackie Robinson who titled his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made” — and meant it — is scarcely present in “42,” a relentlessly formulaic biopic that succeeds at transforming one of the most compelling sports narratives of the 20th century into a home run of hagiography. Thick with canned inspirationalism and heroic platitudes, but only occasionally pushing past the iconic to grapple with the real human drama of Robinson’s life, this personal passion project for Legendary Pictures chairman-CEO Thomas Tull should enjoy a decent first inning with audiences, but won’t surpass Robinson’s famed jersey number in box office millions.

Robinson also wrote in his memoir that, even two decades on from his historic achievements on the baseball diamond, he couldn’t bring himself to salute the American flag or stand for the National Anthem, knowing that he remained “a black man in a white world.” So it comes as no real surprise that a film of Robinson’s struggle was long pursued by two directors with a keen feel for the underside of the American dream: Spike Lee and Robert Redford (who envisioned himself in the role of Robinson’s impresario, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, here played by Harrison Ford). The “42” of writer-director Brian Helgeland, by contrast, remains largely on the surface of things, pitting its Robinson (relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman) against a succession of cartoonish racists and Southern good-old-boys who are either softened by the first baseman’s towering nobility, or completely drowned out by composer Mark Isham’s incessant fanfares.

That Robinson emerged as a divisive figure in a Jim Crow America — where even some supposedly progressive northerners felt there were clear limits on what a black man could hope to achieve — is something only fitfully acknowledged by Helgeland’s film, which instead traffics in carefully delineated heroes and villains of the sort one might find in a comicbook treatment of Robinson’s life (one of which was actually printed in the 1950s). The first hour, in particular, rarely stops reaching for the mythic as it depicts Robinson’s rise from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs to the Dodgers’ triple-A Montreal farm team and, finally, in 1947, to Ebbets Field itself — all part of Rickey’s “noble experiment” to integrate Major League ball. Boseman, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Robinson, has an innately appealing screen presence and a wide, beaming smile, but can do only so much with a part that asks him to act impervious or indignant, but rarely anything in-between.

A far greater gamble comes in the casting of Ford, who has never before attempted this sort of “character” turn, appearing under heavy makeup and padding as the avuncular Rickey, and donning a vocal inflection somewhere in the neighborhood of W.C. Fields. It’s a big, boisterous performance that verges on caricature at times, but ultimately captures the spirit of a man given to self-dramatizing airs and guided by a sense of his place in history. By any measure, it’s one of the few legitimate risks in a movie otherwise averse to taking them.

“42” improves slightly in its second half, which focuses on Robinson’s rookie season with the Dodgers and benefits from the lively presence of John C. McGinley as legendary Dodgers play-by-play commentator Red Barber, whose wry observations help to energize the film’s enervating pace. In the most affecting episode, lifted more or less verbatim from his own account, Robinson is mercilessly taunted with racial epithets by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (well played by Alan Tudyk) during an away game in the “city of brotherly love,” all the while managing to maintain his famous cool. But Robinson’s Herculean suppression of temper took a heavy toll on his psyche (Hank Aaron was among those who speculated it may have contributed to Robinson’s death at the age of 53), a simmering inner tension carefully elided from this telling of the tale.

Helgeland, a fine screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential,” “Mystic River”) with a patchy career as a director, doesn’t even try for any of the irreverent stylistic touches here that he brought to his earlier “Payback” and “A Knight’s Tale,” framing the action in the same, unwavering procession of medium shots and closeups whether we’re on the field, in the dugout or in the locker room. Shot by regular Robert Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess, the images have the overly lit, diffuse halo effect that seemed to attend Redford every time he stepped up to plate in “The Natural,” while the entire movie bears the too-new look of certain period films, with every freshly pressed costume and vintage automobile gleaming like it just came off the assembly line. A movie about Robinson isn’t obliged to be dark or edgy, but for all of “42’s” self-conscious monument building, the cumulative effect is to render its subject markedly smaller and more ordinary than he actually was.

A handful of familiar faces dot the “42” infield, including Christopher Meloni as the cantankerous Leo Durocher, though only Lucas Black as legendary shortstop (and Robinson confident) Pee Wee Reese registers with anything more than trading-card depth.

42

Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, New York, April 3, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 128 MIN.

A Warner Bros. release presented with Legendary Pictures of a Legendary Pictures production. Produced by Thomas Tull. Executive producers, Dick Cook, Jon Jashni, Jason Clark. Co-producers, Darryl Pryor, Jillian Zaks.

Directed, written by Brian Helgeland. Camera (Technicolor, HD, widescreen), Don Burgess; editors, Kevin Stitt, Peter McNulty; music, Mark Isham; music supervisors, Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen; production designer, Richard Hoover; supervising art director, Aaron Haye; art director, Dennis Bradford; set decorator, Cindy Carr; costume designer, Caroline Harris; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/Datasat), Jeffrey S. Wexler; supervising sound editor, Jon Johnson; re-recording mixers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Chris Carpenter; visual effects supervisor, Jamie Dixon; visual effects producer, Lori J. Nelson; visual effects, Hammerhead Prods., Shade FX, Avery FX; second unit director, Allan Graf; second unit camera, Michael Burgess; assistant director, Eric N. Heffron; casting, Victoria Thomas.

Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley.

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