'42': Its success tells us something surprising about what audiences want

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I’m always interested when a movie dramatically surpasses box office expectations — not for what it says about the film, but for what it says about the audience. In the case of 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that smashed the opening-weekend record for a baseball movie and is now looking, this weekend, to continue that hot streak, the reasons for the film’s success might seem to be obvious. It is — at least in my book — a rock-solid sports movie, and it’s also a drama of race in America that allows us to experience the well-worn past with a new vividness and insight. It’s worth noting that a number of people don’t agree with that: They look at 42 and see a complacent liberal message movie with a flawless and therefore overly sanded off and uncomplicated hero. What were they expecting, Jackie Robinson Unchained?

What I think the nay-sayers are missing is that just because Robinson is portrayed in 42 without blemishes doesn’t mean that the characterization is less than complicated — or riveting. As Chadwick Boseman (who is going to be a star) plays him, Jackie is a guardedly spiky good guy who’s been placed in an unfathomably tricky and demanding situation: He’s forced to swallow his anger, over and over again, every time he’s subjected to racial taunts and intimidation — all of which 42 portrays with a stark, at times unrelenting honesty that I’m not sure we would have seen in an inspirational sports biopic made in, say, 1982. Jackie’s response is deeply conflicted, with the rage he feels shoved down inside, camouflaged (but only barely) by his tough and wary political cool, the whole situation made that much harder to bear because he’s literally the only one on earth who has any idea of what he’s going through. He’s a public figure, but he’s really standing alone as a ground-breaking sacrificial hero putting on a performance of knight-with-a-bat jockish ease, and it’s that morally necessary charade that begins to get to him, to almost drive him crazy. Forget “flaws.” (Any second-rate screenwriter can come up with them.) This characterization of Jackie Robinson has something better than flaws — it has layers.

That said, what most interests me about 42‘s emergence as a crowd-pleasing spring hit, especially in light of the rare A+ it received from audiences polled by CinemaScore, is the way that the movie fits — or maybe doesn’t fit — into the current blockbuster landscape. It’s not a special effects film, or a gizmoid action film, or a fantasy fairy tale, or a horror bash, or a knockabout comedy. It’s a script-driven movie that takes its sweet time, that is willing to be classical and square, that isn’t setting itself up as a “prestige” drama that fits all too snugly into the last-quarter-of-the-year paradigm of films you want to see because they may get wedged onto the awards scorecard. 42 has hooks — baseball, race, the story of an American hero, the prospect of Harrison Ford cutting loose in a wryly stylized boss-tweed character role that looks terrific on him — but what I’m happily wondering about is how audiences, once they’re finally in the theater watching the movie, are reacting to its leisurely rhythms, its immersion in the distant past, its rejection of anything too fast or flashy or glib. I’m wondering if the picture is tapping into a nostalgia for a kind of wholesome storytelling that once united viewers by casting a spell of clean, organic emotion.

Because certainly, when I came out of 42, I felt entertained and, yes, uplifted, and I felt that I’d learned something I didn’t know about how, precisely, Jackie Robinson’s career fit into the history of the great American racial psychodrama — how he was the original dawn-of-the-media-age stepping stone between the integration of the armed forces during World War II and the revolutionary activism of the Civil Rights era. At the film’s emotional climax, when the feisty Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Peewee Reese (Lucas Black) stands on the diamond, in front of a hostile crowd, and puts his arm around Robinson, publicly declaring his solidarity with the first African-American player in the Major Leagues, it’s stirring in about five ways at once: We feel black and white, baseball and politics, career and camaraderie — and, yes, two individual men — coming together and transcending differences. (They may not know how to do that anymore in the U.S. Congress, but 42 says: That’s still America.) Watching the movie, though, what I felt, most of all, was grateful for a drama devoid of bells and whistles that could provide such a conventionally wholehearted and satisfying experience. A movie like this one unites the audience in a different way than an exciting yet frictionless digital extravaganza does. It’s cued to the analog heartbeat, and so, just maybe, it takes movie culture not just backwards but forward into the past.

So what did you think of 42? Did it make you feel differently than other, crasser, more gizmo-laden movies do? And would you like to see more films like it?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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