I love baseball. I grew up playing baseball and have fond memories of attending Texas Rangers games with my family as a child, so I can always appreciate a good baseball film, whether it’s a baseball film that isn’t really about baseball (i.e. Moneyball), baseball films that ARE about baseball, or even cult classics like The Sandlot. After last year’s Trouble with the Curve left much to be desired (my review), I was quite excited to see 42, even from the very first trailer I saw for it last fall sometime. I desperately wanted it to be a great film, but, unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed.
42 tells the story of how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) became the first African American baseball player to play in Major League Baseball in modern times. He’s now considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. His legacy continues in the form of Jackie Robinson Day, celebrated by players in the MLB every year on April 15 (which, not-so-coincidentally, is the date on which I’m typing up this review). Robinson was and continues to be a giant in the world of baseball; however, this film does a poor job of showing all of this.
Almost all of my complaints have to do with characters and dialogue. I understand the need to take liberties with history to make it fit into a movie that caters to its audience better, but 42 seems to me to be severely over-romanticized. The relationship shown between Jackie and his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), is sickeningly sugar-sweet throughout, with there not being a single bit of conflict shown between the two of them. While “lack of conflict” is not a problem in and of itself, Rachel’s dialogue is disgustingly cutesy and over the top. Harrison Ford as Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey is strange; he talks in as low a voice register as possible, makes analogies that never make sense, talks at the rate of about seven words per minute, and constantly waves around a half-smoked, chewed-on cigar. As much as I love Harrison Ford in just about everything else he’s done, I really didn’t care for him here. Another character, a small African American boy who is apparently supposed to be younger version of someone who was inspired by Robinson in real life and eventually made it to professional baseball, has incredibly corny lines, namely one in which, after running after a train that Robinson is riding in, he places his head on the tracks and says to his friends, “I can still hear him!” It would have been perfectly achievable to show us that people were inspired by Robinson without this awful child character, and, in fact, that is done better later in the film when Rickey tells Robinson that he saw a little white boy pretending to be Robinson.
The only actor in this film who I can actually praise is Boseman, who plays the closest thing to a believable character to be found in the film. He never tries to be over-extravagant with his actions or emotions, and the moments in which his emotions ARE heightened never feel false. He plays the role admirably, which is a good thing considering the fact that the film is about him and we’re supposed to care about him; frankly, I didn’t care about any of the other characters. I liked some of the Christian statements made in the film by Rickey, who was known for his strong Christian beliefs, though I wasn’t overly fond of the bad language that often accompanied his biblical wisdom. I also liked some of the themes of struggle and equality that were present in the film, though I wasn’t overly fond of the characters who embodied these themes (i.e. Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), an African American journalist who wasn’t allowed to sit in the press box with the white journalists).
You can tell that I really didn’t enjoy this film, but you should also know that I didn’t hate it. Yes, it has its problems (including several that I didn’t mention here), but it’s still a decent baseball movie, and Boseman in the main role makes up for a lot of the film’s faults. I don’t claim to be a Jackie Robinson expert or even remotely knowledgeable on the subject, but I’d like to think that my points are valid and that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. 42 will certainly please casual moviegoers and those who may not be as bothered by the characters as I was, and hopefully fellow baseball lovers will find something to enjoy as well. After all, this movie is all about one person who just wanted to play the game.
Rating: 2 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for thematic elements including language