By Jon Weisman
Spoilers follow, although if you're familiar with the history of Jackie Robinson, not a whole lot will surprise you.
Who's on first in "42," the new movie about Jackie Robinson? Believe it or not, who's on first are Abbott and Costello, which makes for some uneasy feelings if you're a filmgoer seeking more than a casual retelling of the Robinson story.
Setting the scene for America in 1945, the year of the first meeting between Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodger sponsor Branch Rickey, the opening sequence of "42" is discouraging in its superficiality, never more so than when it briefly depicts Americans watching Abbott and Costello on the living-room television set. Putting aside the fact that "The Abbott and Costello Show" didn't premiere on TV until 1952 to allow for the possibility that a snippet from one of the famed duo's movies was being broadcast, it's safe to say that there were fewer than 10,000 household television sets in the United States at the time. This moment, even if it were accurate, was not the least bit symbolic, and was utterly irrelevant to the story of Robinson.
It's not that those three seconds of film are important -- in and of themselves, they're harmless. It's that those three seconds come at an anxious phase for those of us who want to know the movie will live up to the man. Every moment in telling the Robinson story is particularly precious, and a film about Robinson that spends any time showing Americans watching Bud Abbott and Lou Costello on their living-room TV sets in 1945 is a film that threatens not to take its responsibility seriously.
By the end of "42," it's clear that writer-director Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") does take Robinson's story seriously, not to mention reverently. It's a winning movie, which is a relief, though in many ways it remains a victory painted in broad brushstrokes.
There is, for example, the famous chapter in the Robinson saga that features Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson in front of a hostile Cincinnati crowd to show support and encourage tolerance for the besieged rookie -- so iconic that it is featured as part of the "42"marketing campaign. As it happens, there's doubt in the historical record that the incident even occurred. "No one else wrote about it ... not in New York, not in Cincinnati, not in white papers, not in black -- not in 1947," said author Jonathan Eig after investigating the story for 2007's "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season." Robinson himself makes no mention of the event in his 1948 autobiography, Eig noted.
But "42," reasonably taking advantage of the possibility that the Reese-Robinson moment did take place (and let's face it, if it weren't in the movie, almost anyone would wonder why), expands it from a gesture, one that would speak volumes without any words, into "My Dinner with Jackie," a Reese-driven conversation of such improbable length that a character in the film comments on its outrageousness.
Even laughing at the indulgence in the scene, I couldn't help enjoying it, because the idea of such a moment -- and no one questions that Reese came to provide critical support to Robinson during his groundbreaking rookie season with the Dodgers -- is so powerfully wonderful.
And that really is "42," a film that isn't interested in exploring legend vs. reality or shedding new light on its subject, but rather in making the most of the legend, which it knows is pure gold. Fortunately, there's sufficient truth (and eventually focus) in the script to buy into the entire enterprise, and the actors do a hell of a lot to elevate it.
The most triumphant moment in "42" comes during another lengthy sequence that illustrates the vicious hazing Phillies manager Ben Chapman gave Robinson. Alan Tudyk, last heard in theaters as the differently demonic King Candy of "Wreck-It Ralph," delivers every Chapman line with a gleam in his eyes, an almost salacious glint. He is having fun, and that's truly frightening, something you can't easily imagine without seeing it visualized. It is completely, beguilingly cruel.
Chadwick Boseman, in turn, steps up to the challenge of playing someone as deeply conflicted over his inability to respond as Robinson. It's fairly easy to buy Boseman in the part, but it certainly helps when we feel like we're getting inside Robinson's anguish as a man faced with a constant choice, rather than someone as seemingly driven by destiny as "42"paints him at the outset.
There are also no small amount of contributions from the supporting cast, with Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher), Max Gail (Burt Shotton), T.R. Knight (Dodger traveling secretary Harold Parrott), Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca), Toby Huss (Clyde Sukeforth), Derek Phillips (Bobby Bragan) and Jesse Luken (Eddie Stanky) among those getting moments to shine. John C. McGinley is at once witty and unobtrusive as Red Barber, delivering so many classic lines from the ol' Redhead that you might yearn for Barber to be featured in a film of his own. (Note to self: Write screenplay about Red Barber-Vin Scully origin story.)
On the other hand, the sweetly likable Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson) rarely gets an opportunity to break out of simple angelic support, nor does Brad Beyer (Kirby Higbe) escape the role of almost cartoonish villain in the clubhouse. (Either Chapman is given more dimension, or Tudyk just grabs it.) And when the big moment comes for sports writer and confidant Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), it raises more questions about that character's own journey than it answers.
Still, the most debated performance in "42" figures to be that of Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Some will no doubt find it goofy, but you know, Rickey was nothing if not a bit goofy. If there's a problem here, it's not with Ford, but with the fact that despite the occasional zinger, Rickey has line after line that many will see coming a ball field away. That is the case with much of "42" in general. Depending on your level of familiarity with Robinson's story -- and there are few stories in baseball that have been more frequently told -- revelations are few and far between.
The ultimate question: Do you care?
The Jackie Robinson story never gets old, and a grade-school theater version could potentially bring tears to my eyes. In the moments when "42" transcends the obvious and actually makes you feel the hard-fought triumph of something so right over something so wrong, it's exhilarating. And heaven knows that for audiences who know only Robinson's name and little else, the film will be invaluable. I look forward to taking my older children to it, even as it exposes them to some reprehensibly vicious language. The main regret is only a missed opportunity here to do more, that "42" gives you a primer in Robinson studies rather than a Ph.D.
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