People go to inspirational sports movies not in spite of their predictability but because of it. Other than romantic comedies, there's no other genre so dependent on the fact that you know exactly how they're going to play out. It doesn't help that they're usually based on true stories. These movies–Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Glory Road, The Express–want to get our juices flowing and comfort us at the same time. Actual sports (not to mention real life) have so much agony and uncertainty wrapped up in them that you can understand why people like watching movies where the underdogs always win or the racists always lose.
If you think you want to see 42, then you'll probably like it, and no review is going to make you feel otherwise. The movie tells the story of how Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in the 1940s while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It sets up the pins and knocks them down. Just about everybody at the start of the movie dislikes Robinson because he's black, but by the end, everybody realizes he's great. That's the movie, which doesn't offer much insight or emotional complexity. It congratulates us for being open-minded enough to realize that bigotry is bad.
Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, and he possesses the man's swagger and smile, not to mention a bit of his stoicism. But he's not playing a nuanced character: He's a symbol for something larger, the struggle of any minority group to be treated equally. It's an incredibly difficult task to portray bland virtue, and Boseman does his best. But although writer-director Brian Helgeland doesn't try to make Robinson a Christ-like figure who suffered for our sins, there's a martyr-ish quality to the way the character's been conceived of that keeps him at a distance from us. The real Jackie Robinson was presumably a layered, complicated man–you know, a fully-formed human being. The one in 42 mostly reacts to the racism around us without revealing much of his inner life. He's just this guy we root for because, hey, nobody deserves to be treated the way he was.
The whole movie has that same goodhearted but musty attitude. (It comes through strongest in Harrison Ford's frumpier-than-frumpy performance as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who drafted Robinson and, according to the movie, spent the rest of his career chewing on cigars and offering gruff-yet-adorable inspirational speeches to his star player.) 42 wants to point out that the old days were bad, but whether it's Mark Isham's pervasive, on-the-nose score or the generally nostalgic look and feel of the film, Helgeland has crafted a story that's so damn conventional it rarely challenges its audience. Watching 42 is akin to getting a full body massage while being told, "don't worry, we can lick bigotry."
The problem is that the racism in this film doesn't possess the necessary sting that would remind us that it still exists in our world today. 42 will introduce a really horrendous character, like Alan Tudyk's rival manager, who's such a clear villain that it's easy to boo-hiss him and even easier to feel superior when he gets his comeuppance. Even Robinson's teammates who initially aren't happy about an African-American player in their locker room come around eventually, but not in any way that gets at how we confront our own biases when meeting people from other walks of life. Still, the movie is intelligently made and sometimes finds a sneaky way of making racism hit home. In one scene, an anonymous father and his young son enjoy a warm moment at the ballpark together, until the father is revealed as a vitriolic racist who shouts the N-word at Robinson over and over again. The son, confused but impressionable, starts doing the same thing. It's the film's effort at showing the extent to which ignorance is learned behavior. And Helgeland also is too smart to suggest that baseball integrated because they realized it was the right thing to do: It was because teams wanted to win, and if a black man could help them do that, so be it. Still, 42 only occasionally makes us feel like bigotry is our problem, not just theirs.
Because Robinson is such a cipher in 42, I sometimes wondered if maybe Helgeland was after something more subversive than what we see on the screen. It's possible to interpret that by making 42 somewhat generic, Helgeland wants Robinson's story to stand in for a lot of other people's stories. In its broad outline, the challenge Robinson endures in 42–keeping his cool and not playing into the hands of his detractors by lashing out–isn't that dissimilar to the strategy that Barack Obama incorporated in his run for president and later during his administration. And the ridiculous logic used by bigots during Robinson's time for shunning him ("How will it affect the locker room?") is the same kind of ridiculous logic used in our discussions of closeted professional athletes.
These are all compelling ideas, but it's likely giving 42 too much credit: I don't buy that the filmmakers specifically intended any of them. The movie's a little too soft and a little too square. That's even more surprising considering that Helgeland once made A Knight's Tale, a movie that giddily took all the conventions of the medieval-times film and turned it into a comedy filled with anachronistic rock 'n' roll songs. 42 is the opposite. Helgeland giving us a staid sports movie that never mucks with the formula. It may help young kids appreciate Robinson's courage, but for a movie based on a real person, 42 doesn't feel much like real life–and, unfortunately, that's where all the troubles this movie is trying to deal with exist.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly for Deadspin about movies. Follow them @griersonleitch.