Film review: 42

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Chadwick Boseman (center) plays Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, in the hero biopic 42. Chadwick Boseman (center) plays Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, in the hero biopic 42.

Swing and a miss: Jackie Robinson biopic fails to tell the whole story

I wish it were possible to report that 42 is a homerun. It ain’t. It’s pretty standard bio fare. Back in 1975, Paul Simon wrote that there are 50 ways to leave your lover. In 2013, are there 42 ways to avoid seeing 42?

See, I’ve been looking forward to 42 for months. It’s not often that biopics do that to me, but 42 combines two seemingly can’t-miss elements: baseball and Jackie Robinson, a symbol of American heroism.

But, almost as a rule, biopics are difficult. When squashing a historically significant person’s life into two hours—in this case, two hours and eight minutes—filmmakers run the risk of making that person sanctimonious, or boring, or sage-like, or lots of other adjectives.

Thankfully, 42 isn’t sanctimonious and Jackie isn’t sage-like. From the movie’s perspective, he’s just a boring guy who wants to play baseball. Jackie also knows that he has to be the coolest head on the field; Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells him as much.

So how long can we watch a guy get called every horrible racist name and not react before we start to feel icky—and then even worse—apathetic? That depends on whether you feel the biopics wheel’s turning or get caught up in the story.

Fortunately, the story—which has no surprises or a-ha! moments—has good actors to disguise its total lack of surprise, engagement or ingenuity. As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is fine, but he’s not given much to do other than look noble or angry. Nicole Beharie, as Rachel Robinson, is charming.

Christopher Meloni, who’s had quite a career since leaving “Law & Order: SVU,” burns up the screen as Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, but is gone too soon. After telling his players that Robinson is the future of baseball and defending his right to play, Durocher is suspended by baseball commissioner Happy Chandler for incidents that are “detrimental to baseball,” including an affair with a married actress. Historically accurate? Sure. Good storytelling decision? Not really.

Finally there’s Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. Tudyk deserves special recognition for being willing to hurl 8 million racial epithets at Boseman in a major American motion picture. Those scenes contain the movie’s few genuinely uncomfortable moments, and they hit home.

And in a revelation that will surprise no one, Ford is terrible. Rickey is supposed to be a character, not a caricature, and Ford is no character actor.

But story-wise, there’s nothing to recommend 42 because it sticks so close to biopic formula. And moments that could be powerful—such as the first time Rachel discovers a “Whites Only” restroom and ignores its implications—don’t have much impact because they come and go in an instant. It’s almost as if 42 is more interested in Robinson on the field than off the field, but we know what he did on the field. We grow up knowing it. And part of the point in a biopic is to give us a feel for a person’s whole life, right?

42/PG-13, 128 minutes/Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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