The national critics have been, at best, reluctant to praise “42,” writer-director Brian Helgeland’s biopic about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in major league sports.
Richard Roper, Chicago Sun Times: “a competent but mostly unexceptional film.”
Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor: “TV-movie-of-the-week dull.”
Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal: “ponderously reverential.”
A. O. Scott, The New York Times: “Biographies of great athletes can be roughly sorted into three categories. There are hero-worshiping fables suitable for fourth-grade classrooms, scandalous feet-of-clay exposés and, rarest of all, narratives that link sports with significant, nonathletic historical events and social issues….But while ‘42,’ Brian Helgeland’s new film about Robinson, gestures toward the complicated and painful history in which its subject was embroiled, it belongs, like most sports biopics, in the first category. It is blunt, simple and sentimental, using time-tested methods to teach a clear and rousing lesson.”
Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times: “You almost can’t blame writer-director Brian Helgeland for taking an old-fashioned, earnest-to-a-fault approach to the genuinely heroic narrative of the Brooklyn Dodger who in 1947 — in a move masterminded by team General Manager Branch Rickey — broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and won rookie of the year honors.”
Since we almost can’t blame him, I guess that means we can blame him. But what exactly are we blaming Helgeland for? These critics are right about one thing: “42” is told in a straightforward, old-fashioned, Hollywood biopic style, but that appears to have been an intentional artistic choice made by the writer-director, and a slyly subversive choice. “The film is so on-the-nose, it practically could have been made in 1947” (when the main events take place), Turan complained. But Helgeland has laced his very conventional-looking movie with some scenes depicting the racism of Robinson’s time in detail that would never have made it into a movie made in 1947, and it is the startling juxtaposition of style and content that makes these scenes so effective.
In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott pondered what Robinson’s story might have looked like in “other hands—Spike Lee’s, let’s say, or even Clint Eastwood’s” (One wonders whether Scott saw Eastwood’s recent baseball story, “Trouble with the Curve”), but, if the film had been made in a less conventional, more contemporary manner, these scenes—a scene in which a barrage of racial epithets hurled at Robinson by the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies comes especially to mind—would not have seemed nearly so striking. In a Spike Lee “Joint,” they would have come across as a revisionist take on history, almost a contrarian’s take, certainly a twenty-first century take on twentieth century history.
In the context of Helgeland’s square dramaturgy, however, they are part of the telling of a classic story in a classic manner and, therefore, come to feel, ultimately, more true—as more a part of the story than as a retrospective reflection on it. Rather than seeming like a movie released in 1947, “42” is like the director’s cut of a movie made in 1947 with all the rough parts that were cut out of the picture in 1947, the parts of the story nobody wanted to see back then, restored.
Instead of blaming (or “almost not blaming”) Helgeland for the seeming conventionality of his choices—the carefully-paced editing, the “shamelessly cornball, scenery-chewing old-coot performance” (Peter Rainer is right about that) of Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey (the Dodger general manager who hired Robinson), Mark Isham’s soundtrack for the film, which may be politely described as having been heavily inspired by Randy Newman’s score for “The Natural,” we should recognize Helgeland’s accomplishment for what it is: pop art of the highest order.
While we are the subject of movies that deserved better treatment from the national critics, I’d like to say a few words about “Admission.”
The film stars Tina Fey, as Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer, and Paul Rudd, as John Pressman, an old acquaintance of Portia’s. Portia is unmarried and has been recently dumped by an insufferable college professor, played by Michael Sheen, who has taken up with an equally insufferable “Virginia Woolf scholar,” sometimes referred to as “that Woolf woman.” John, also unmarried, has a son, who is black and adopted and with whom he has travelled the world spending time here and there on missions of good works. John, who is now running an experimental boarding school in New England, has come to believe that Portia is actually the birth mother of his most promising student, an autodidact named Jeremiah, and he uses this to help get Jeremiah, a very long-shot candidate, into Princeton.
Superficially a romantic comedy (much of the film involves a budding romance between Portia and John), and even more superficially a satire about the college admissions process in which Portia is employed, the film is more than anything a wry commentary about the breakdown of the traditional family in twenty-first century America. There is hardly a mother-father-child nuclear family to be found anywhere in this picture; perhaps the only one is Jeremiah’s adoptive family. Portia and her mother (played by Lily Tomlin), a hardcore, radical sixties-feminist type who sports a tattoo picturing Bella Abzug, have a very difficult relationship, the foundation of which is a family legend that Portia’s mother never even knew her father. (He was just a suitable sperm-provider Mom met once on a train.) John has an equally fraught relationship with his son, who dutifully tags along with his dad on his world travels but who obviously (well, it’s obvious to anyone but John) craves the stability of a home and friends and family.
The director, Paul Weitz, has assayed some of this territory before in the film version of Nick Hornby’s novel, “About a Boy,” which dealt with the budding quasi-parental relationship between a single man and a socially awkward teenager. This is rocky terrain in which it’s easy to set a wrong foot, but Weitz, a successful and frequently skillful director of commercial comedies (his oeuvre also includes “Little Fockers” and “American Pie”), manages to make it all feel truthful (especially, and exceptionally, the relationships involving adoption) and all look painlessly smooth.
It is, perhaps, this very smoothness (some might call it slickness) that has thrown the critics off. Just as the square form of “42” serves as a cover for its most subversive content, the commercial superficiality of “Admission” helps to disguise the fact that, in this seemingly traditional family comedy, there are no traditional families.
Bottom line: Fey is droll; Rudd is charming; Tomlin is delicious; and Weitz makes the non-traditional family look as American as, well, pie. What’s not to like? I guess you’d have to ask the critics.