42 (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

42 (2013)

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Sprint awayAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerSome people should be treated with reverence.  Jackie Robinson deserves that more so than many other people you could make a film about.  Even in the horrible schools I went to growing up in the south we were taught just how important and brave the man was.  But creatively, getting too caught in the brightness of the subject can stall any real insight.

Robinson is the subject of 42 but aside from deep appreciation the film accomplishes little more than the occasional warm grin.  Considering the virulence that Robinson was greeted with over the course of his career I'm surprised that more resonant material could not be found.  But 42 shows itself a film not interested with the ongoing struggle that Robinson dealt with.  Instead it has more of an idea of Robinson, one cut from the same cloth as Jesus, and presented with all the blunt hand holding of a high school dramatists first serious attempt at writing a story.

I say that with a bit of praise.  42 doesn't get to the hard truths of what Robinson went through but there is clear joy among the cast in being able to tell part of his story.  In this sense 42 is a success by smoothing the outer edges and focusing entirely on the accomplishment of Robinson beginning the long process of breaking a segregated system apart.

In the director part of his career Brian Helgeland hasn't shown a flair beyond basic framing.

In the director part of his career Brian Helgeland hasn't shown a flair beyond basic framing.

Lead Chadwick Boseman is key to most of this success.  I've not seen him before, but despite the lightweight script he is able to handle saccharine moments with sadness and dignity.  His portrayal of Robinson would work very well in a movie dedicated to getting to know the man instead of passing familiarity with the legend.  Off the field he also showcases some sweet mutual chemistry with Nicole Beharie, who plays his eventual wife.  Still, Beharie's nice performance as Mrs. Robinson is limited to a handful of shallow "I believe in you" scenes in the first half of the film followed by the off-screen birth of their child and her unceremonious disappearance from the rest of the movie.

One of the biggest problems with her character, and the way the film is written, is that these moments are treated like bullet points instead of generating a character arc.  What results is a bunch of vaguely connected episodes starring a guy that had a hard time playing baseball.  Characters appear to offer a quick conflict for Robinson to overcome with his resilience and then drop off the film entirely.

When screenwriter, and director, Brian Helgeland writes a problem to continue beyond a single scene its resonance with Jackie and baseball at large results in the best scenes and performances in the film.  Boseman is given a hefty sparring partner in Alan Tudyk who plays a baseball manager playing as verbally dirty as possible if it means knocking Jackie off of his game.  His evolution from cocksure bigot to a man confused at why his world is changing so fast is entertaining and illuminating of the way a society soon saturated with quick spreading media has to deal with this ugliness in the sake of economic and social progress.

Harrison Ford creates a character for the first time in years.

Harrison Ford creates a character for the first time in years.

An underutilized character path showcasing the economic side embodied by Harrison Ford who, as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey, creates a character for the first time in years.  In there's potential to see Rickey as baseball's answer to Oscar Schindler, saving a group of people from isolation and bringing them into the world of profit generation.  This potential is again squandered by making sure that Rickey always speaks on the side of the angels leaving some of his earlier profit-motivated lines forgotten.  Pity too that the first time Ford bothers to bring something new to his performance the results feel like an awkward teenager caking on makeup to play an old man.

All this might pass as reasonable entertainment if it weren't for Helgeland's tendency to write bad lines filled with foreshadowing and self-importance.  Jackie is compared to Jesus so many times that it seemed possible an overenthusiastic fan might burst onto the screen and explain how both Jackie and Jesus wore the same shoe size.  Every other bit of conflict is spelled out in the broadest possible way, from Rickey's first line, "I'm gonna do it.  I'm gonna bring a negro ball player to the Brooklyn Dodgers" to closing conflicts introduced with "We're a ship without a captain and there's a typhoon coming."  Helgeland falls into the biggest trap possible for his dialogue by having characters speak as though they already know the way history is going to play out.

Despite its willingness to indulge in histrionic posturing 42 does not disappear into arrogance.  The performances and general tone are still nice enough to make the rest of the film go down with smooth inconsequence.  For light afternoon fare with its heart in the right place it's not quite there, but puts in a good effort.

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42 - Tail42 (2013)

Screenplay written and directed by Brian Helgeland.
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Alan Tudyk, and Nicole Beharie.

Posted by Andrew

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