42 Review – At its best when it isn’t forcing sports film cliches

42 is destined for lazy weekends. Viewers channel surfing on a Sunday afternoon will surely stop and watch, commercial breaks and all. It’s that kind of sports movie. Traditional to a fault, 42 lays on the epic layers of sappiness a bit too heavily, but remains immediately watchable thanks to some great performances and a good sense of humor.

The film centers around Jackie Robinson’s rise to fame through the efforts of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager. Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, who delivers a big, almost larger-than-life performance that also manages to be brilliantly entertaining. Ford has always been a commanding force in big, leading roles, but 42 shows his range and presents a viable direction as a supporting character actor.
Chadwick Boseman offers up a quiet, measured portrayal of Jackie Robinson. There’s depth within, though, as you can see the fire brewing in his eyes as he’s assaulted with opposition. Not everyone was thrilled with a black man in baseball, and the hate coming from racists on the field and in the crowds is so harsh, it’s hard to not sympathize with Robinson. Boseman’s performance only makes it easier.
42’s greatest strength is its performances, even if they’re coming from the worst places. Alan Tudyk deserves some credit for his performance as Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman. His endless string of vile comments makes for one of the film’s most powerful moments, as Robinson is forced to endure and turn the other cheek against someone anyone would love to punch in the face.
The tension boils beneath the surface in so much of 42, yet it never truly boils over. Perhaps a testament to Robinson’s determination and character, 42 does seem to be more safe than anything. It dances a little too close to glorification than honest portrayal, with the typical sweeping sports movie score and all the cliches of the genre. Little boys wish for Robinson’s success in the crowd, the soundtrack swells, everyone claps triumphantly, and to certain extent, it all seems a little undeserved.
Sports films tend to present ridiculous comebacks and bold triumphs with all those cliches because the plot matches the epic feel of the presentation. 42 isn’t like that though, so the overdone sports presentation seems out of place. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play baseball, but the film is about more than the game. The victory is a social one, and the scoreboard is largely irrelevant, yet the film seems stuck in that sports film blueprint, fashioning a victorious moment out of nowhere and wrapping up in an oddly forced fashion.
Still, when 42 allows its performances to command the screen it’s an easy film to enjoy. The story and presentation is rough around the edges, but it rarely gets in the way of a largely watchable experience. In the end, it should find a happy home as a warm blanket of entertainment to cuddle up to on a lazy Sunday.

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