Sports movies have become cinematic comfort food. Their focus is usually an uplifting, underdog story that ends with the main character gaining the respect of his detractors. Not many of subjects are as well known as Jackie Robinson, whose story is depicted in "42." With such a high profile topic, it would seem the filmmakers would want to take special care when crafting the film. But "42" is melodramatic and disjointed, relying more on tackling the subject of racism than allowing the audience to fully get to know Robinson.
Detailing Robinson’s career through his first year with the Dodgers, "42" isn’t a character study as much as it is a look at the times in which he lived. You won’t leave the theater knowing more about Jackie Robinson as a person than you knew when you entered. You will know what the baseball climate was like at that time and that racism in baseball wasn’t a problem just for the South. Philadelphia, in particular, is shown in a bad light in the film when it comes to racial tolerance.
The sports film genre has a certain formula to it, but writer-director Brian Helgeland ("A Knight’s Tale," "L.A. Confidential") doesn’t seem to be aware. There are elements - overcoming adversity, an unorthodox coach/mentor taking a chance on the main character - that lend themselves to Robinson’s story automatically. But the film that Helgeland has crafted misses the mark on many others. "42" is aimless in its pursuit, you don’t know until the end how far into Robinson’s career it’s planning to go. Then, when the ending does come, it almost seems abrupt. As a writer, he seems to be overwhelmed by the source material. As a director, he seems unsure what he is hoping to accomplish as he ends up with a film that is uneven at best and feels like an overly dramatized, big budget Lifetime movie.
Not doing the filmmaker any favors is the lack of an authentic feel to the film. For the most part, the film looks as though it is shot on a soundstage and most of the actors are just playing dress up for the day. You are always aware that you are watching a movie as "42" is never quite able to engulf you in what is happening on the screen. Its inability to transport you back to that time period might be the biggest amongst many mistakes.
Compounding the problem are some of the actor’s performances. Harrison Ford may as well be in another film from everyone else. He is so over the top in his portrayal of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey that it feels as though he is in a one man show on Broadway and playing to the back of the house at times. No scenery is safe from being chewed by the actor, except for the prop cigar that he constantly carries but never once actually smokes during the film. The makeup they have slathered on him doesn’t do the actor any justice either - his eyebrows here rival that of Larry Hagman’s during the reboot of "Dallas."
Chadwick Boseman fares better as the lead character, but mostly only when he is on the field playing ball. Boseman portrays Robinson almost as an athlete you would see playing today, cocky of his own abilities and full of swagger. He struggles, however, to get through the few scenes that call for him to show emotion. His inability is made more evident by his co-star Nicole Beharie, playing Jackie’s wife Rachel, who offers a breakout performance. She is relegated to being a rock for the baseball player when he needs emotional support, but Beharie is regal and commanding in the little that she is given to do. Making herself the most memorable performer in the film proves her potential and she is sure to grow from here.
By the end, "42" almost makes a folk hero out of Jackie Robinson. For certain viewers, that is enough for them. But the movie doesn’t attempt to offer any real moments or to examine any of the characters enough to give the film teeth; and a real life hero like Robinson deserves better. For that, "42" strikes out on all accounts.