Director: Brian Hegeland
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford
3 (out of 5) globes
It begins like a parody of an inspirational sports saga: after a cheesy montage catches viewers up with Jim Crow America, grizzled baseball GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) peers up from his newspaper and growls that he’d like to bring the first African American to the Majors. Surely the real scene wasn’t this unimaginative, and from there, “42” — the first Jackie Robinson biopic since 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” which starred Robinson himself — can only go up. Eventually, it does.
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The narrative predictably plows through Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) ascent from the Negro League to getting the Brooklyn Dodgers into the World Series (where they lost to the Yankees, which is probably why the film stops there). There is a constant stream of silly biopic scenes that turn reality into kitsch — Robinson even crosses home, in mega-slow-mo, to the strains of a “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” soundalike — plus a persistent syrupy score that infuses even the most perfunctory moments with Importance.
But it’s no “Remember the Titans.” This isn’t a mere comforting history lesson of racism overcome, its actions tucked snugly away in the past where they can’t hurt us. Although sometimes comically simplistic, other times it heads right into the thick of it. Boseman’s Robinson is more symbol than character — but then, Robinson, as seen here, was treated less like a human than someone designated to be the anger magnet for a country undergoing violent growing pains.
Robinson remains stoic against perpetual verbal (and sometimes physical) assaults; there are at least as many N-word-drops here as in “Django Unchained,” and is still only PG-13. It’s not because he wants to, but because he’s been tasked by history, or at least by Rickey. He has to suffer the invective of a redneck Phillies manager (Alan Tyduk), who later claims he’s only doing shtick. (He did the same to Hank Greenberg, after all.) Rickey claims such abuse is important on getting people on the side of the abused, thus tricking the populace into wanting progress.
It’s times like these “42” seems savvier than it tends to let on. A stiff production, it’s still enlivened, as it were, by the hilarious stiffness of Ford, who’s only now fully coming into the grouchiness that for the last two decades has often smacked of mere indifference. He soaks up his dialogue with a lower register that makes him sound like Sam Elliott, uttering old-timey patter like “Judas Priest!” and “What in Satan’s fire?” Chewing scenery while barely moving his jaw, he’s the film’s real MVP.