As a baseball fan, I wouldn’t argue that the story of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier is a worthy topic for a film. I will say, however, that Brian Helgeland’s 42 is not up to its topic. Here, we end up with a finished product that’s a veritable clown car of everything wrong with the biopic as a genre. It’s just a bit too stolid, a bit too corny and way too heavy-handed. This picture is solid if you’re looking for little more than a formulaic crowd-pleaser of the uplifting sports variety — but be prepared for a film that’s been slathered in sincerity and has the production values of a TV sudser.
The film depicts a large swath of Robinson’s (here played by TV actor Chadwick Boseman) time before and during his rookie season. It begins with him playing in the Negro Leagues and advancing thanks to Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (a game Harrison Ford, playing someone other than Harrison Ford for the first time in his career), who plans to make Robinson Major League Baseball’s first black player. From what I can gather, writer-director Helgeland was intent on making 42 as true-to-life as possible, and there’s an acute attention to detail. While it’s an admirable approach, it creates a film that’s too dependent on a story with no clear dramatic arc. Ultimately, the whole thing comes across as little more than a series of anecdotes — like an adaptation of a Wikipedia page with all the dramatic coherence that the analogy suggests. These bits and pieces are cobbled together to make an uneven movie that switches back and forth between superfluous filler (including scads of footage left in the movie only because it happened in real life) and heavy-handed preachiness.
The film’s entire purpose is to shine a light on the racism that was prevalent not only in baseball at the time, but throughout America. And while I don’t doubt the veracity of what Helgeland is presenting,42 proceeds in an exhausting ham-fisted fashion. In 42, there’s little nuance. There’s one moment toward the beginning of the film where Robinson and other black players are described in purely stereotypical terms — as lazy thugs, for instance. This is interesting because there remains a tendency today to judge athletes in the same racial terms, but the film goes nowhere with this idea. Instead, 42 shows racism in simple, monochrome terms, while never delving deeper into how these concepts might still persist today. Going beyond a simple good versus bad approach might’ve made 42 a great film, but Helgeland isn’t shooting for greatness. Instead he’s settling for a film that’s little more than another uplifting sports flick. Within these limited aims, 42 is perfectly agreeable, but it lacks any true power. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Flat Rock Cinema, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher