'42' Review: An Uplifting Sports Movie That's Also Flamboyantly Square and Corny

'42' Review: An Uplifting Sports Movie That's Also Flamboyantly Square and Corny

Apr 12, 2013

It's not like there's a dearth of real, historical facts surrounding the life and work of Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, the first African-American man to play professional baseball in the major leagues. He bravely soldiered through an early moment in America's internal 20th-century battle for racial equality, enduring a level of harsh resistance that would also greet, years later, in different forms, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama. Type the president's name into Twitter if you think that last bit isn't true.

So when 42 begins with a title card that reads "Based on a true story," it's a moment to wonder what, exactly, the word "based" is supposed to mean in this context. But you'll figure it out when you spend 128 minutes watching it unfold in all its warm, vintage, honey-glow detail. Because this isn't really an intimately detailed biopic or nuanced examination of America's tortured progress with institutionalized racism. It's Power History. And Power History is a big loud dude who's into sweep and size and feelings and winners and losers (it's worth noting that, in the closing credits, every racist character in the film receives some sort of comeuppance). Power History likes all that stuff at the expense of pretty much everything else. It can even take racism, a wound that still needs national tending, and make it seem like a terrible dream we were all morally courageous enough to wake up from way back in the days of typewriters and polio.

42 is also an Uplifting Sports Movie. And there's a playbook for that kind of thing. It involves soaring trumpet blasts for grand slams and slow-motion slides into home plate and cheering and tears and the love of someone special in the stands and a gruff, growling team manager and cruel adversity to overcome. Here, that cruel adversity arrives in the form of hateful white people who cross Robinson's path, specifically Alan Tudyk as an opposing team's manager, a lightning rod for evil who uses the N-word more than all the characters in Django Unchained put together. Now, dunk the Uplifting Sports Movie into Power History and you get a moose-like herd of suddenly tender-hearted high school jocks who've just discovered they like learning. Then they go on a sensitivity rampage, one where every line of dialogue out of their collective mouth is aware that it's a witness to histories both present and future.

Having said all that, 42 functions perfectly as that hybrid. It's flamboyantly square and corny. It starts big and gets even bigger, demanding that you get on board. It offers zero surprises and a palatable historical glossiness, but also terrific David-slays-Goliath pleasures. Most of all it should rightly make a star out of Chadwick Boseman, who leans into a version of Robinson that's more tightly contained raging bull than long-suffering saint. He carries every moment he's on-screen, and since he's almost always on-screen he is the movie. If this sort of thing is too obvious and show-offy for you, his performance will make you forget yourself. He's the right man in the right film, giving the soft-focus feel-goodisms a rough edge nobody bothered to write into the script, turning it all into the equivalent of a pop fly you think you've got that still manages to hit you right in the face.

3.5 stars

MORE: That Time Jackie Robinson Played Himself in His Own Biopic, 'The Jackie Robinson Story'

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