4/18/2013 - Jackie Robinson withstands a storm of prejudice to help integrate professional baseball in 42, featuring less-than-stellar story-telling about a fascinating subject.
The cigar-chomping, pronouncement-making Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), grumble-voiced general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, decides to integrate baseball and picks Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a man with the right combination of talent and disposition to withstand all the senseless hate about to come his way. Robinson is sent first to Montreal to play for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Royals. Then, he heads to Brooklyn to don his Dodgers shirt (and his number, 42), where he is constantly harassed by opposing teams, people in the stands and even his own team members. But his skills on the field and his affability wins fans and eventually Rookie of the Year.
This can all be hard stuff to make into a non-cornball movie here in the early 21st century. Robinson’s enemies — like n-word spewing Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) of the Phillies or the pitcher who shouted “you don’t belong here” after beaning Robinson in the head with a baseball — are such egregious dumb-asses that they don’t register as real human beings. They are cartoon portraits of awfulness. Likewise, Boseman gives us a Robinson who is sort of a sports Jesus and Ford’s Rickey is some odd combination of the picture in your head when you hear the phrase “fat cat” and one of those grandpa-like gruff-exterior/heart-of-gold-types. This is the kind of movie where characters remark on how “the times are changing” and other benefit-of-hindsight-sounding bits of dialogue that give the movie the feel of an educational video or perhaps a school play written by the elementary school students that are performing in it.
And yet, I’d imagine Robinson did feel like he was swimming across an ocean of egregious awfulness and the prejudice holding him back was exactly as ludicrous as it sounds some 60-plus years later. While he wasn’t actually some kind of saint, Robinson did show a superhuman ability to stand-up to the waves of prejudice while fighting back only by being better on the field. So when players like Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) stand up for Robinson, sure, it’s hokey as all get out, but it’s also cheesily heart-warming.
“Cheesily heart-warming” may in fact be the best way to describe this movie, which is, as a piece of story-telling, often kind of terrible (it is an excellent example of why movies should “show” not “tell” — 42 sometimes feels like all telling, no showing) but nonetheless has you cheering on its characters. Robinson is a fascinating, likeable guy and his relationship with his wife Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) is sweet and romantic. I think the way to tell this movie to make it less cheeseball and more emotionally resonant and nuanced would be to do it from Robinson’s point of view, instead of doing it from several steps back. Every now and then we get a glimpse of what that might feel like, such as one scene when the Robinsons arrive in the South and Rachel sees a “Whites Only” bathroom sign for the first time (she grew up in the Los Angeles area). The way Beharie and Boseman play the scene you get a sense of how weird and scary and angering it would be to see something like this in your own country. It was one of the few times when I felt like I was not watching a “The March of Time” newsreel but getting inside the life of a flesh and blood person. B-
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language. Directed by and screenplay by Brian Helgeland, 42 is two hours and eight minutes long and distributed by Warner Bros.