Monday, April 15, 2013

Tag Team Movie Review: 42

OREL: Mrs. Orel and I caught 42 this weekend. Reportedly budgeted at $40 million, the movie is already a success, earning $27.3 million so far, the highest-grossing opening weekend for a baseball movie. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave it an A+; critically, it's at 75% "fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes and has a 63 Metacritic score.

So it feels sacrilegious to criticize a project so pure of heart — and on Jackie Robinson Day! — but the ghost of Roger Ebert just threatened to kick my ass if we didn't provide a balanced review. Really, we wanted to embrace this movie and were ready to flood the Regency Village with our tears. And while we left the theater with even more love and respect for Jackie, we left dry-eyed.

MRS. OREL: There are many favorable aspects to this film, starting with the performances of Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Beharie as Rachel. Heartfelt, disciplined work from both. I also appreciated Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Andre Holland as the journalist Wendell Smith and Toby Huss as the coach Clyde Sukeforth. Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese is a pleasure and Alan Tudyk succeeds in conveying the awfulness of the reprehensible Phillies manager Ben Chapman.

O: Agreed, the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca and John C. McGinley as Red Barber.On the other hand, SoSG hero Harrison Ford essays the role of Branch Rickey by chewing so much scenery you worry the Ebbets Field bleachers might cut his gums. Director Brian Helgeland has teased out Ford's eyebrows with extensions, given him a stogie to chomp on and allows his jaw to jut and lips to curl with abandon. It's fun to watch but it's caricature, eyewitness approval notwithstanding.

MO: Indeed, so much pixie dust is used that it requires major league squinting to find glimpses of reality. Mark Isham's score is cloying and derivative. Caroline Harris' costumes are crisp, as if freshly unpackaged. The vintage cars are assembly-line shiny and every hairdo is sleek and perfectly Brylcreemed.

O: However, Don Burgess' photography is magical in creating an on-field intimacy in the baseball scenes. The visual effects work and Richard Hoover's production design are excellent in re-creating Ebbets Field, Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Crosley Field in Cincinnati and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. The baseball sound effects are crisp and lively. Count Basie's version of "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" even makes an appearance, albeit over the end credits.

Jackie and Rachel remain essentially the same people at the film's end as they are at its beginning.

MO: But at the center of 42 is the difficult promise Rickey drafts out of Jackie Robinson. The surety that no matter what horrible invectives are thrown his way he must never, ever lose it. Never rise to defend, fight or seek revenge. This was Jackie's monumental courage. He did not break the promise. Who of us could do the same?

O: Ultimately, the movie's respect for its source material is its strength and weakness. The burden of both institutional and casual racism are effectively presented, with Tudyk's portrayal of Chapman especially biting. Indeed, the film makes liberal use of the N-word, and every utterance feels like a beanball to Jackie's soul. But the filmmakers are so careful of Jackie's legacy they've included only one scene (reportedly fictional at that) dealing head-on with Jackie's stress and anger at his gargantuan task.

MO: Similarly, the loving marriage of Jackie and Rachel, so crucial to this story, is soaked in sugar. Are we to believe they never buckled or chafed at the consequences of that impossible contract? We are left with a tiny scene of Rachel, teary and leaning on Jackie's shoulder, after he's been deliberately hit on the head by a pitch.

O: Without those touches of humanity, Jackie and Rachel remain essentially the same people at the film's end as they are at its beginning; they just land on a bigger stage. We learn more about the legend than the man. Because he was a pioneer doesn't mean he wasn't human. It's The Passion of the Baseball Christ.

MO: In my version of Hollywood, Magic Johnson produces sequels to this movie. He convinces Spike Lee, or Bennett Miller, or Steve McQueen, to direct, and we get to see Jackie in the 1955 World Series, Jackie navigating family life as his son is sent to Vietnam, and Jackie at the very end. But 42 is what we have now and I have to like it for what it tells the world about Jackie and Rachel Robinson.

O: As a historical document and educational tool, 42 is a resounding victory. As a testament to the Robinson family, it feels lacking.

MO: They deserve more.

Some random details I wanted to get off my chest:

  • In a scene at one of the minor league stadiums, I thought I saw plastic seats in the background. Wouldn't this have been an anachronism?
  • Speaking of nitpicking, "Baseball Writer's Association" in the epilogue? Two closed quotes around "42"? Where are the proofreaders at Warner Bros.? Back me up here, grammar geeks.
  • The film ends in 1947, meaning there's no Vin Scully in it. Which is kind of a bummer.
  • In researching Jackie, I was saddened to learn that Jackie's son, Jackie Jr., died in a car accident one year before Jackie himself died. It reminded me that Tommy Lasorda had a son, Tommy Jr., who died in 1991. And Vin's son, Michael, died in 1994. It turns out some major figures in Dodger history are connected by like tragedy.

UPDATE: One example of how 42 has made an impact, by former pitcher C.J. Nitkowski.

7 comments:

Franklin Stubbs said...

We probably passed you guys on the way out!

Franklin Stubbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Franklin Stubbs said...

I hear what you're saying about the character development, but that's a bit of a sticky wicket, isn't it? In a funny way, it's a movie where the lowercase b baseball is the protagonist and uppercase B Baseball is the villain.

I mean, you couldn't make the movie entirely about how a bunch of racist white guys got theirs. We have Django Unchained for that.

Orel said...

We went Saturday at 4:30, Stubbs. Maybe 20 people in the house.

Orel said...

Just look at how many effective biopics there have been lately that have dealt with the whole character: Ray, Walk the Line, The King's Speech, etc.

Franklin Stubbs said...

Yep. We were there Saturday at the early showing, and pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Orel said...

Well, it's not like UCLA and Westwood have any special connection to Jackie.