It’s April, which means baseball season is now in full swing, both on the field and at the multiplex. Movie fans know that Hollywood isn’t exactly batting .1000 when it comes to baseball movies, and for every The Natural or Bull Durham there’s just as many Cobbs, Fever Pitches and Major League 3s striking out on the big screen. This year’s entry into the lineup is the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42, and while it’s not exactly a home run, the film (much like its speedster subject) manages to turn what looks like a single into a stand-up double.
Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, the first African-American man ever brought up to the show. Like all trailblazers, Robinson’s ascent was anything but smooth, and the talented ballplayer had to deal with overt racism from fans, opposing players and even his own teammates. That Robinson not only survived but thrived (he’s in the Hall of Fame, and his 42 jersey is the only one retired by all 30 big-league squads, save the Yankees) is a testament to his greatness.
42 focuses on a short window of time in the late 1940s, when Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided it was time to violate an unspoken code about keeping blacks out of the game and began scouting the Negro Leagues for the right player to break baseball’s color barrier. He found his man in Robinson, an ace base runner, hitter and fielder. The film highlights the Rickey-Robinson relationship during his first season in the bigs, granting both men a mythic stature that only sports (or movies) can provide.
The success of 42 is largely thanks to three men: Boseman, who seems genuinely agonized while taking ungodly amounts of verbal abuse (the movie features so many uses of the word “nigger” that I started wondering if Quentin Tarantino did an uncredited re-write); Ford, who delivers his best performance since 1993’s The Fugitive (yes, it’s been that long); and writer/director Brian Helgeland, (writer of the fabulous L.A. Confidential), who keeps his script lean, and fills his frame with authentic period detail and terrific recreations of some of baseball’s most beloved stadiums of yesteryear.
42 never digs too deep below the surface of its subjects, content instead to be a crowd-pleasing sports movie where inspiring displays of human courage and decency are at least as important as athletic performance. It’s a hit.
Also opening this weekend are two films with style and ambition to spare that nonetheless fall apart right when they should soar. The Place Beyond The Pines stars Ryan Gosling as a daredevil loser who, upon learning from an old flame (Eve Mendes) that he has an infant son, turns to bank robbery to support a family that doesn’t even want him. Bradley Cooper co-stars as a cop with a politically connected dad who splits his time between playing hero and making enemies in the department as he climbs the ladder toward elected office.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a staggeringly ambitious movie that wants to make Big Points about fathers and sons, crime, and how past actions have a way of mucking up your future. It’s also way too long, and falls apart in the last act. That’s a shame, since Gosling is mesmerizing, and Cooper manages to follow up his breakthrough turn in Silver Linings Playbook with another credible dramatic performance. Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) is hugely talented (the first shot of this movie is a classic), but the material ultimately overwhelms his skills as a filmmaker. I can’t quite recommend Pines, but at least it’s an interesting failure.
The same can be said for Trance, the latest cinematic upper from director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire). James McAvoy stars as an employee at an auction house working as the inside man for a robbery who betrays his cohorts (led by the always compelling Vincent Cassel), and then buries what happened deep in his subconscious. It’s up to a sexy hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to figure out where he hid the loot, though she has a hidden agenda all her own.
I hung with Trance (another movie that starts off well) for about an hour, before its is-it-real-or-is-it-hallucination? structure wore me out. Danny Boyle is incapable of making a boring movie, and there is plenty of visual candy to dazzle your eyes (and I’m not just talking about Dawson), but Trance spins wildly out of control until it collapses under the weight of its own silliness.