Trying too hard when so little extra effort was necessary, 42 elevates the story of Jackie Robinson to that of cornball legend rather than just honoring his legitimately uplifting, heroic saga by telling it straight. Working with perhaps the most inspiring of all 20th-century sports tales, writer-director Brian Helgeland opts for overblown melodramatics at every available turn, thereby reducing the enterprise—about Robinson’s successful efforts to become Major League Baseball’s first African-American player—to merely a standard-issue piece of feel-good fluff, tonally and structurally no different from scads of likeminded athletics-related films.
For Helgeland, it’s not enough that Robinson, simply through his very actions, was a symbol of courage, tenacity, and turn-the-other-cheek nobility; instead, he has to be underlined, through other people’s trailer-ready comments, as a “hero” and a “superman,” just in case Robinson’s life didn’t bear that out on his own. That’s part and parcel of 42, which, when not having characters overtly articulate exactly what they think and how they feel (a problem that extends to its many one-dimensional racists), presents a post-WWII America, both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, that reeks of Hallmark-grade rosiness, what with everyone decked out in uniformly well-pressed suits and dresses, boasting beautifully neat hairstyles, and navigating environments that sparkle with artificial cheer.
The patina of Hollywood phoniness coating 42, which derives its title derived from Robinson’s uniform number, would be less dispiriting if its main character weren’t a bona fide trailblazer who deserved every accolade and huzzah imaginable. Nonetheless, though the proceedings frustratingly avoid complexity in favor of slow-motion triumph and easily resolved racial conflicts in which intolerant scumbags always get their just deserts, at least Chadwick Boseman, as Robinson, exudes the right mixture of boundless enthusiasm, simmering anger, and hardy resolve.
Helgeland balances Robinson’s struggles from 1945 to 1947, during which time he fought his way up from the minors to make the Brooklyn Dodgers and win Rookie of the Year, with a portrait of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (a gruff, entertaining Harrison Ford), who claims that his desire to obliterate baseball’s color barrier is driven by the great financial opportunities it affords. For a while, the idea that money, rather than tolerance, was Rickey and Robinson’s motivation helps make Helgeland’s film seem slightly less one-dimensionally hagiographic. Yet by story’s conclusion, the writer-director makes sure to have Rickey let Robinson know that his real reasons for adding him to the team amid player revolts and public outrage was that he just couldn’t stand the unfair segregation that lay at the heart of his beloved game. This may very well be accurate, but in Helgeland’s ham-fisted hands, it plays like one more instance of printing the legend when the gritty, unadorned truth would do.