The beauty of the Jackie Robinson story is that it’s so naturally inspiring that not even lethal amounts of bombast, sentimental writing, soaring strings, hammy acting or desperate hyperbole can tarnish it beyond repair. Director Brian Helgeland’s version of Robinson’s rise to become the first black player in major league baseball features healthy doses of all of the above, and the script is so stale it might have been unearthed from an ancient box of Cracker Jacks. And still 42 persists in entertaining you, even when you’re cringing, because the real story is so compelling.
Few subjects have the power to make grown men grow misty with nostalgia as easily as baseball — although certain Clint Eastwood films seem to have the same effect — so audiences may not judge Helgeland too harshly. Director of the Mel Gibson revenge fantasy Payback and the dumb-fun A Knight’s Tale, Helgeland has written terrific scripts before, for Mystic River and L.A. Confidential. But with 42, he lets his worst instincts fly, piling on platitudes when he could have given us a glimpse of an extraordinarily courageous man instead of a noble saint. Helgeland’s Robinson only once comes close to breaking down under the ugly vitriol thrown his way. This is myth-making, not biography.
Fortunately, as Robinson, Chadwick Boseman cuts a charismatic figure, and he moves like a real baseball player (his twitchy shuffle when he prepares to steal bases is particularly amusing). As Branch Rickey, the stubborn Brooklyn Dodgers executive determined to introduce black players into the league, Harrison Ford fares worse, relying on overwrought facial tics and bushy eyebrows to get by. The problem isn’t entirely his fault; nobody sounds convincing when uttering such lines as “Dollars aren’t black or white — they’re green!” 42 would have us believe that Rickey’s motives were entirely altruistic, that his brief mention of making money by winning a World Series is just subterfuge to disguise his desire to right the great wrong of bigotry. Maybe I’m just a suspicious South Floridian whose soul has been crushed by the Miami Marlins management, but I suspect there were a few solid practical reasons, too.
The film follows the decision by Rickey to sign Robinson in 1945 and runs through spring training in Florida on to the 1947 season, when Robinson first strode onto Ebbets Field to jeers and catcalls and a smattering of cheers. He faces setbacks and threats; a Philadelphia manager (Alan Tudyk) almost breaks his composure at the plate by hurling a stream of racist taunts. But one thing is guaranteed: When a pitcher throws at his head, Robinson is destined to pay him back in the pennant race. 42 is just that kind of simplistic movie.
The film does carry off a pleasant nostalgic vibe, and the tension in the Dodgers’ locker room, where Jackie never knows if his teammates will shun him or shake his hand, is handled effectively. Especially good is Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ manager; his fiery presence grabs your attention like a fastball to the head. But his screen time is all too brief. What we’re left with is good intentions but not a particularly good movie.
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Andre Holland, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni.
Writer/director: Brian Helgeland.
Producer: Thomas Tull.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 128 minutes. Thematic elements including language. Playing at: area theaters.