Given the game’s inherent poetry, it’s nearly impossible to make a bad baseball movie.
How difficult is it? Think pitching a perfect game.
In the World Series.
For the Cubs.
So while it comes as little surprise that “42” is a good movie, it’s still a letdown because it should have been a great one.
The injustices Jackie Robinson endured in breaking baseball’s color barrier must never be forgotten. His is as inspiring a story as any you’ll find. But what’s presented in “42” plays like a rehashed Wikipedia entry. It covers all the necessary plot points, but “42” is so focused on telling viewers what Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was like as a hero, it mostly forgets to tell them what he was like as a man.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland — who’s fared far better as a writer (“L.A. Confidential,” “Mystic River”) than as a director (“A Knight’s Tale”) — focuses solely on the years from 1945, when Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, through 1947, his first season with the team.
But those three short years are still too much ground for even the jackrabbit-quick Robinson to cover in a little more than two hours.
Especially when “42” is nearly as much about Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Dodgers’ president and general manager who signed Robinson and took plenty of heat himself. It also squeezes in the story of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), the Pittsburgh Courier writer who accompanied Robinson, sitting behind third base with his typewriter in his lap because he wasn’t allowed in the whites-only press box.
As an introduction to Robinson and 1940s baseball, though, “42” makes for an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser.
Boseman’s Robinson is magnetic — 200 pounds of raw determination poured into a wool uniform, flying around the bases like a jittery greyhound. At times, he seethes with a quiet rage, since he was handpicked by Rickey as someone who was strong enough not to fight back at the abuse he would suffer.
And while there’s plenty of that abuse on display, most of it feels glossed over.
Sure, some of the Dodgers sign a petition trying to keep him off the team. But Robinson wins most of them over so easily, quickly and conveniently that it doesn’t ring true.
Most of the real viciousness is saved for a particularly brutal encounter with the Philadelphia Phillies, whose hateful motormouth of a manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls a nonstop barrage of vile invective at Robinson.
Tudyk performs these difficult scenes with such ease, he’s a shoo-in to take home the best supporting actor trophy at whatever’s the complete opposite of the NAACP Image Awards.
It’s all so unsettling, you’re likely to find yourself wishing that this were Quentin Tarantino’s “42,” so Robinson could get his oh-so-bloody retribution.
In happier moments, John C. McGinley adds a touch of period authenticity, and a few smiles, as Dodgers radio announcer Red Barber.
His understated description of the team’s new opening-day attraction: “Jackie is very definitely brunette.”
And for baseball fans, there’s little that compares to the thrills of seeing Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds lovingly, albeit digitally, re-created or the likes of manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) or shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) brought to life.
For his part, Ford is a Hollywood icon, but he doesn’t exactly disappear into a role. Even behind padding and prosthetics, his voice lowered to a bass-rattling rasp to approximate the jowly, growly executive, you rarely forget you’re watching Indiana Jones.
It’s particularly distracting seeing Ford play an old man until you remember he is an old man. At that point in history, Rickey was younger than the 70-year-old actor.
It also doesn’t help that Rickey was too complex for a half-dozen movies, let alone part of one. But “42” comes closest to capturing his spirit with his business-first declaration, “Dollars aren’t black or white, they’re green.”
Moviegoers, especially those not well-versed in baseball lore, are likely to forgive “42” its shortcomings. The screening audience applauded each of Robinson’s accomplishments and every kindness showed him like nothing I’ve ever heard.
After all, the story is so powerful, you can’t help but be moved by it.
It’s just a shame that, much like the way Robinson runs his hands through the infield dirt before an at bat, “42” only scratches the surface.