Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cinema File #162: "42" Review

Okay, right off the bat (no pun intended) I’ve got to say that I am probably the absolute last guy who should be reviewing this movie. First off, I’m not a baseball guy. Like most Americans, I’m not a fan of the great American past time, and while I appreciate the nerdy obsession many people have with it as intellectually superior to the macho, homoerotic passion of your average football fan, at the end of the day, its just not for me. Also, and perhaps more importantly, I’m a twenty something white dude, so the kind of racism I’m going to be talking about is not something that I have ever had or will ever have any direct experience with, at least in any form directed against me personally. If you want to know how faithful this movie is to the history of baseball, ask Ken Burns; if you want to know how faithful it is to the history of American racism, ask Henry Louis Gates. I’m just the guy who likes it when sharks take shotgun blasts to the face. So please, when I talk about why I didn’t like the movie 42 (thankfully not the prequel to Movie 43), take my opinion with the tiniest possible grain of salt

Alright then, moving on –

42 is the story of Jackie Robinson’s historic rise to fame in the major leagues as he combats prejudice and…well, more prejudice I guess. That’s about it really, and it’s probably my biggest problem with the film, even if it’s such a common trajectory for movies about the black experience during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. It would be easy to come away from this film with the impression that the only adversity Robinson ever faced, and in fact the only thing that defined him as a person, was his struggle against racism, and to diminish real people like this just to present the message that racism is really bad (a lesson that you’ve either already learned, or will never learn), seems like a disservice to those involved. Halfway through 42, I started wondering if there should be some sort of equivalent to the Bechdel test for movies about black people prior to the 1970s, where there must be at least one conversation or scene not about how terrible racism was. I’m not saying that it wasn’t terrible and pervasive at the time and even now, but the simplicity of this movie and others like it turns the concept into a caricature that is ultimately counterproductive to any educational aim.

My overall feelings concerning this movie are best encapsulated by the way it ends, which will only delve into spoiler territory if you’re as ignorant of baseball history as I was before I confirmed the events of the film on Wikipedia. The film ends on a triumphant note as the Dodgers win The Pennant, and then immediately goes into the Where-Did-They-End-Up? stills I hate in so many movies based on true stories, conveniently forgetting the thing that even I know about baseball, which is that winning The Pennant is not in fact the last stage of any given baseball season. Why not end on the World Series you ask? Most likely because the Dodgers evidently went on to lose that series to an all white team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crapping on the skill it takes to get to the World Series, but you’d think any attempt to capture an authentic moment in baseball history would reference it. The whole movie is like this, disingenuously ignoring any facts that might distract from the inspirational quality of the feel good story in so brazen and complete a fashion that I can’t take it seriously.

I really hate to use this comparison in the context of a film about black people that is technically well made, but the characters in this movie are only a few steps away from Tyler Perry levels of stereotyping. Much as you’ll never see a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. that mentions the adultery, or one on Rosa Parks pointing out that she was only one of many potential test cases for the NAACP’s legal strategy, you will never see a movie about Jackie Robinson that doesn’t paint him as nearly Christ-like in perfection. I don’t know enough about the man’s history to know what if any skeletons he had in his closet, but don’t expect this movie to tell you, because that might actually be interesting. And the white characters are basically every kind of white character you need on your Movie About Racism Checklist, with Harrison Ford’s kindly and evolved Branch Ricky on one end, and Alan Tudyk’s comically racist coach on the other. I’m not even arguing that racism at the time wasn’t as exaggerated as the worst examples displayed in this film, but without any outside information, I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not because it is all so equally hackneyed.

And I have to wonder whether the inspirational baseball movie as a genre is dead anyway. I haven't paid attention to the critical consensus or box office numbers for this film, so I could easily be wrong here, but even independent of the social justice angle, do we as a culture still have the child-like love of baseball that led to so many crappy eighties movies I'm supposed to think are classic, and that this movie clearly tries to tonally evoke? In the wake of steroid scandals and record books riddled with asterisks, haven't we grown out of the naivete necessary to be swept away by these sorts of stories? Maybe I'm just under that impression because I never had that sense of wonder, but this seems like the kind of movie that would have worked a lot better as a contemporary to Field of Dreams, back when this kind of unexamined optimism and earnestness could be appreciated unironically.

Overall, 42 is one of those movies that’s exactly matched to the expectations it sets going in. If you’re the kind of person who saw the trailer and said “that looks like it will be really fun and inspirational,” than most likely you will probably have fun and be inspired. If like me you saw the trailer and said “that looks like a movie that will bury me in schmaltzy pablum,” then you will be as buried as I currently am. This movie will no doubt score with its intended audience, which as a critic is the best thing I can say about a movie, even if I am the farthest thing from its intended audience without actually being the still racist ghost of Ben Chapman. By the end, when we see Tudyk’s smiling face in a still and learn the horrible fate he had as punishment for being the bad guy in a simplistic movie without grey areas, I half expected them to ditch all historical accuracy and just give the guy super AIDs just to make their point. But then, the fact that I didn’t like it is almost beside the point. I wasn’t meant to like it. Maybe you were. If so, go nuts.

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