It’s so, so, close to being a home run.
When 42 (2013) first came out, I went with a group of friends to see it in theatres. After out tickets had been checked and we walked inside, something happened that is so rare, you have no choice but to recognize it as a gift from above:
We had the entire theatre to ourselves.
Do you have any idea how lucky you have to be for that to happen? We felt RICH! Immediately the four of us made a beeline for the back of the theatre and for the next two hours, happily watched the movie while we talked freely and commented on it as if we were sitting on the couch at home. It was easily one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. I only wish that the movie 42 was as memorable as the feeling of having that theatre to ourselves.
Based on true events, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in Major League Baseball. Taking place throughout the 1940s, Robinson faces a hostile public, most of whom don’t want professional baseball to integrate. Robinson endures intense scrutiny and prejudice all while working tirelessly to become a full-time member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Making a biopic stand out from the crowd is tricky. Because so many of them follow a similar narrative or hit the same emotional beats, it’s difficult to separate the truly great ones from the ones that are just average. The last thing you want to say when watching a biopic is, “I feel like I saw this same story last year but about a different historical figure.” Cough, cough, Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019). By the way, check out my reviews for those movies here and here. Unless a biopic is extraordinarily well-made and tells the story of its subject in a way that is impossible to ignore, it’s bound to be forgotten. Or worse, remembered as just another historical drama. Unfortunately, that’s the case with 42.
The story of Jackie Robinson is inspiring, intriguing, and uplifting. However, the impact of his life and accomplishments get lost in writer / director Brian Helgeland’s biopic. To its credit, the movie successfully showcases the highlights of Robinson’s life, but only ever for a moment. It never lets the significance of what’s happening sink in. Each rousing speech, emotional hardship, or powerful moment is glossed over as the movie rushes to show you another part of Robinson’s life. Surprisingly, even though the movie rushed through a majority of its scenes, the two-hour runtime still inched by at a glacial pace.
From a stylistic standpoint, 42 is stunning. The elaborate set pieces and the period costumes will transport you right back to the 1940s. Seeing all the dated clothing, architecture and technology is always one of the most fun parts of any period piece, and 42 is no exception. Sidenote, fellow writers, could you imagine having to lug a typewriter to a baseball game? The commitment! In both style and tone, 42 is a perfectly adequate historical drama. That doesn’t bother me at all. Those movies are important and can be very entertaining.
What does bother me, are movies that don’t have the strong writing or fleshed-out characters that make a story worthwhile. Writing and character are what gives a movie bite and gets us to become emotionally invested. Without them, a movie just feel’s like it’s going through the motions. 42 lacks both solid writing and solid character work. For example, I feel like despite him being the main character, we never really got a sense of who Robinson is as a character. Why baseball was important to him or how hard he worked to reach this point in his career were never brought up, and instead, far too much time was spent on the white men who either helped Robinson, or hated him. In so may ways, that’s a major problem on the movie’s part. 42 isn’t technically a bad movie. It’s just wildly disappointing considering the material it had to work with.
This was my, and really, the world’s, introduction to Chadwick Boseman. It was also our introduction to Boseman playing every famous figure he could get his hands on. Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall…the man is slowly acting his way through history. It’s no wonder that Boseman is cast to play all these influential men. He possesses such a commanding presence that you have no choice but to sit up and pay attention. Boseman’s masterful portrayal is by far the best part of 42. It’s a performance that is so powerful and well-executed, that had he been given better dialogue to work with, probably would have earned him an Oscar nomination. In his fist major movie role, Boseman came out swinging (ha, cause baseball) and he’s been hitting home runs ever since. God, I love a good pun.
Boseman shares a wonderful chemistry with the rest of the supporting cast, especially Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson’s wife, Rachel, and Harrison Ford, who plays Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the way, I have zero idea what Branch Rickey really sounded like, but oh boy, is Ford doing an accent that is bizarre and cartoony. He sounds like an old-timey pirate mixed with an evil cowboy, neither of which is what I think Ford was going for. Regardless, Ford’s performance is solid and again, with better dialogue, could have been a lot more memorable than it turned out to be.
42 is a fine enough movie that the whole family or your high school history class can enjoy. Though the awe-inspiring story of one of sport’s most legendary heroes comes across as watered down and like it’s trying too hard, it’s still guaranteed to please any baseball-lover. Although, now that I think about it, there was a surprisingly short amount of actual baseball-playing. Wow, this movie really didn’t know what was important enough to keep in the final cut, did it? Well, at least thanks for giving us Chadwick Boseman, 42!
Have you seen 42? What did you think?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!