Jackie Robinson is an American legend: The first black player to break Major League Baseball's color barrier, he shouldered the hopes of a generation, weathering a flurry of abuse to open the gates for future players to partake in America's pastime.
Brian Helgeland's Robinson biopic, 42, will also secure a spot in history: history class. This is the kind of shoddy biopic that teachers will keep in the bullpen for sick days, so some hung-over substitute can put it on for a "lesson." Yet this is neither a good sports movie nor a worthwhile historical film. Its peers aren't Bull Durham or Eight Men Out. It belongs on a shelf by Sarah, Plain and Tall and other TV movies.
If one were to piece together Robinson's story based solely on 42 (that was his jersey number), it would read as follows: Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was a nice, college-educated man who loved his wife. One day, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) called him up to the bigs. Robinson inspired little kids. Most white players didn't like him, spending so much time snarling racial slurs they didn't realize he was both nice and good at baseball. Then everyone realized he was good at baseball. Then they were friends.
Robinson's baseball card would probably include more information than 42, and Helgeland does a serious disservice to one of the most important figures in sports history. Robinson's character is criminally underdeveloped, despite Boseman's best efforts. Ford, grumbling so Harrison Fordly, is basically reduced to the kind of white-person-solves-racism role that scored Sandra Bullock an Oscar. Everyone else is racist. Until they're not anymore.
Even the baseball sequences are lazily constructed. The film might be forgiven if it had a truly great sports moment, but most games are reduced to one at-bat or watching Robinson steal bases. Even the final game for the pennant—the most vital element of any baseball flick—is boiled down to a quick duel between Robinson and a bigoted pitcher.
42 isn't a snapshot of two men who made history by breaking barriers. Hell, Remember the Titans is a more complex, moving portrait of racial tensions in sports, and even that sugar cube managed some solid sports action. 42 is a hackneyed, cookie-cutter film that manages to tell us absolutely nothing about a turning point in American history. But on the bright side, at least it'll provide endless naps for future history students when their teachers are sick.
Critic's Grade: D+
SEE IT: 42 is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Bridgeport, Fox Tower, Hilltop.