Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: "42"

The Jackie Robinson biopic, "42," is a worthwhile film, but it could have been a much better one.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland goes straight for starry-eyed hagiography in the story of the first black player to integrate major league baseball. Although it strives to show a complete picture of an icon, it still puts him on a pedestal so high the audience sometimes has trouble glimpsing the real man.

The movie is effective in showing the behind-the-scenes struggle endured by Robinson during his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and especially in his relationship with Branch Rickey, the gutsy general manager who broke the color barrier by drafting Robinson.

I just wish Helgeland could have been a little more restrained in his idol worship. At nearly ever turn, his film takes a double-dip into gooey sentiment ... and then it spoons up some more.

Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford are a good pairing as Robinson and Rickey. Boseman is a decent physical match for Robinson, and his steel glare and clenched jaw muscles cue us in to how the player struggled to shrug off the taunts and insults he endured from fans, opposing players and even his own teammates.

As everyone knew, if Robinson responded to the provocations with anything more than quiet resolve, he would be blamed for the incident and the cause of integration set back for years. Helgeland and Boseman show us Robinson's on-the-field heroics, then take us back behind the dugout to show him splintering his bat against the wall in frustration.

Alan Tudyk has a terrific small part as a racist opposing manager who strides out onto the field every time Robinson comes up to bat to hurl a constant stream of vile epithets. Tudyk is pitch-perfect in representing  the Jim Crow mentality, where white people thought it was their God-given right to put "coloreds" in their place.

Ford is very good in his first "old man" role. Yes, I know he played "old Indy" in the last Indiana Jones film, but that's not really the same thing -- he was still portraying a vibrant man defined by his physicality and manly confidence. Here he's playing a 66-year-old (that's actually five years younger than Ford himself) who is stooped and bent, his jowls working furiously underneath caterpillar eyebrows.

It's a patriarchal role, and Ford subsumes his superman persona completely. At first we think the performance is all exterior -- the way he worries his cigar, speaks with a distinctive accent and furrows his brow at young whippersnappers. But Ford goes deeper in later scenes, revealing a man deeply bothered about the way the sport he loves divides players unnecessarily, and determined to do something about it before his own time is up.

At first Rickey insists to anyone that asks that bringing in Robinson is simply a smart move, both in terms of baseball and business. Robinson is a terrific young player with a great future ahead of him, and more black people would be apt to buy tickets.

"Dollars ain't black and white," he teases. "They're green. Every dollar's green."

But in the end the relationship between manager and player becomes much more.

The script is filled with plenty of clunky, corny dialogue. "God designed me to last," Robinson intones during a low moment. His adoring wife Ray (Nicole Beharie) has little to do but smile fetchingly from the stands and spout her own tin-ear invocations: "Please God, let him be seen for what he can do."

The good definitely outweighs the bad in "42," and anyone who's a fan of baseball or history will likely be highly engrossed by this tale. I just wish this Cracker Jack of a movie had dialed down the sugar.

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