42 proves an important theory on biopics: a historical figure can be too significant for the Hollywood treatment.
Jackie Robinson's impact on baseball and race relations in the United States was monumental and writer/director Brian Helgeland's adaptation of the athlete's life goes to great lengths to drive that home. Chronicling most of Robinson's early career, where he quickly jumped from playing in the Negro leagues to the minor leagues to the majors, 42 ham-fists the big picture into Robinson's astonishing climb to success. It lauds Robinson as a Christ-like figure instead of painting him as a human overcoming great odds. The movie demonstrates that Robinson was driven by his love of the game, not a mission of integration. Early in his career, he says to a colleage, "I'm just a ball player." The man replies, "No, you're a hero." There's no denying the man was right, but the movie plays out from his point of view rather than putting us in Robinson's cleats. 42 is a glossy treatment that never gets beyond the text book reading.
Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson, plucked from obscurity by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to become the first African-American baseball player in the Major Leagues. The road to acceptance is expectedly bumpy: Robinson starts at the Dodgers training camp where he's hazed by teammates and townspeople alike. Rickey keeps him in check with routine inspirational speeches, all boiling down to keeping his temper in check and ears turned off to racist remarks. Ignoring the ignorance comes easy to Robinson, miraculous in historical context but making the action 42 a tedious affair. It's one scene after another of Robinson holding strong against white opposition and breaking boundaries with pure talent. Staged in a strangely claustrophobic and theatrical fashion, the movie lacks a necessary fire, even when Boseman, Ford, and Nicole Beharie as Jackie's wife Rachel, are firing on all cylinders.
42 has a lot of filler, with every actor in the ensemble getting their moment of bigotry and subsequent reversal, along with scenes that seemingly go nowhere (an extended scene between Rachel and a babysitter signals danger for Jackie's son, but fails to impact the story). But every didactic stretch of race drama is made up for by one intense scene, perfectly orchestrated by Helgeland on every level. In a game against Philadelphia, Robinson is verbally harassed by Phillies player manager Ben Chapman. Actor Alan Tudyk bravely inhabits the vile role, spewing every racial slur and wisecrack under the sun as Robinson attempts to cope. It's a tremendous sequence that pushes Robinson to his breaking point, a moment with enough drama to sustain an entire movie, as opposed to being the pinnacle of an overwrought life story.
There's a fakeness to 42 that overshadows the performances, with '40s baseball scenes enhanced by CG backdrops and a swelling score by Mark Isham that uses traditional violins and trumpets to force emotion down our throats. Robinson, and Boseman as a capable performing bringing him to life, can live on his own, but Helgeland insists on echoing the inherent drama of the ball player's story with Hollywood pizazz. From the film's first minutes, found documentary footage from the early '40s accompanied by voice over from Robinson's personal mythologist, reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), 42 is factory-made biopic. A lively ensemble keep it afloat with Ford's gruff muttering working for Rickey, and T.R. Knight, Hamish Linklater, and Christopher Meloni add a dash of comedic flavor to the droll history lesson. But this is Jackie Robinson! A man whose story deserves a home run, not a bunt. Showing him as a ball player, not a hero, would have knocked 42 out of the park.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.