Movie Review: “42”

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We all know the story, I hope: baseball, due to an odious “gentleman’s agreement,” kept itself segregated and lily white for 50-60 years. Branch Rickey, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, set out in the mid 1940s to find just “the right man” — meaning a black man — to bring to the major leagues, thereby breaking that color barrier. Jackie Robinson was the right man. He made his major league debut in 1947, standing up to and utterly transcending the petty and hateful moods of the day, making the racists look like the retrograde buffoons they were, kicking off a Hall of Fame major league career and changing baseball — and America — forever.

But the fact that we all know that story creates one small problem: how in the heck do you make a movie out of it that delivers anything fresh, new or even the least bit suspenseful? With a fantastic hero and a fantastic story — which has the added benefit of being 100% true — at their disposal, this was the challenge for the makers of “42.”  They did a good job with it. Not a great job. But a good job. One that’s worth the price of admission but that isn’t quite the Oscar-bait or piece of importance you get the sense they think they made.

The central problem with the film is a problem you see with almost all biopics: characters who appear to be overly-aware that they’re in a biopic. To be sure, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and others knew for a fact that what they were doing was historically significant. But I’m struggling to imagine how the real Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey could ever have carried on a couple year’s worth of conversations in which every other phrase was a platitude or a grand declaration underscoring just how significant everything was. Yes, a filmaker needs a shorthand way to convey years’ worth of information and drama in a 115-minute film, but Harrison Ford’s Rickey and Chadwick Boseman’s Robinson often seem more like robots from a living history museum than real people.

source:  Which isn’t to say that their performances aren’t good. In fact, in many ways they’re quite wonderful. Chadwick Boseman impresses as Robinson, especially in the baseball scenes. Actors frequently screw up baseball movies due to their inability to, you know, play baseball (I’m looking at you Tim Robbins, Tony Danza and many, many others), but Boseman captures Robinson’s essence as a ballplayer. Most impressively his running style and the way in which he terrorized pitchers trying to hold him on. While the thinner-bodied Boseman isn’t exactly a close physical match for Robinson, not once while watching him do you not believe he is, in fact, Jackie Robinson. That’s something that an awful lot of biopics screw up (I’m looking at you Leo DiCaprio in “The Aviator” and Jack Nicholson in “Hoffa”).

Harrison Ford is another matter. Much has been made about how he has hammed it up as Rickey. And yes, it is a bit jarring at first to see a longtime leading man like Ford putting on such a mannered, almost gimmicky performance. But over the course of the film Ford’s Rickey grew on me. It’s weird. You never forget that you’re watching Harrison Ford playing someone who is, more or less, Branch Rickey. But you can tell Ford had a lot of fun doing it and that sense of fun helps lighten things up somewhat in a film with many difficult and often uncomfortable scenes. And, strangely enough, knowing that it’s Harrison Ford there under those bushy eyebrows — Han Solo! Indiana Jones! Jack Ryan! The President of the United States! — adds some gravitas to a character which demands some gravitas.

With a sometimes ponderous script on one side and some winning performances on the other, what puts this movie over as a good one? The decision to focus most of the film’s attention on the baseball. After a couple of opening scenes set in offices, most of the rest of what’s important in “42” happens on the diamond, and those scenes look and feel great. Thanks to some nifty CGI Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Forbes Field and Crosley Field look so real you’d think you’ve stepped into a time machine. The game play feels real too. Maybe a bit minor league (I know Robinson was fast, but man, those catchers couldn’t have thrown THAT poorly back then) but what is often a weakness in baseball movies — the actual baseball — is a strength here.

Other strengths: winning supporting performances from Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, John C. McGinley as Red Barber and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher. Tudyk is absolutely (and appropriately) horrifying as the racist Chapman. McGinley delivers Barber’s signature catch phrases (“in the catbird seat” and “tighter than a new pair of shoes on a rainy day”) as if they weren’t signature catch phrases, putting you in mind of a radio listener in 1947. Meloni’s Durocher takes a few more liberties — I sincerely doubt the real Durocher casually dropped things like “nice guys finish last” at the end of random phone calls — but he conveys Durocher’s larger-than-life persona in a few key scenes.

Ultimately, “42” is a good baseball movie which delivers on the baseball but not so much on the movie. History tells us what happened, so it can only do so much to be even a little bit suspenseful or surprising. And the format almost requires conversations to be exercises in exposition rather than true, character-driven dialogue. For this reason it doesn’t enter the baseball movie pantheon and, at times, can be a bit of a slog.  But it’s definitely worth your time and your money.

Madison Bumgarner began his rehab assignment yesterday

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Giants ace Madison Bumgarner tossed three no-hit innings yesterday in his first minor league rehab start with the Giants’ Arizona Rookie League team. He struck out two and walked a guy, while sitting in the 88-91 m.p.h. range on his fastball.

Bumgarner, who is coming back from a sprained left AC joint in his shoulder suffered in a dirt bike accident in April, will return to San Francisco to throw a bullpen session and then go back on the road for more rehab games. That’s a lot of traveling, but the Giants obviously want to monitor his progress. At the moment he’s expected to build up his strength for the next several weeks and, hopefully, return to the Giants’ rotation some time after the All-Star break.

Of course, there shouldn’t be too much of a rush. The Giants have lost five in a row and 12 of 13 and currently sit in last place, 24.5 games behind the Dodgers. At this point Bumgarner rushing to rejoin the Giants is like an Australian soldier getting a wound dressed to hurry back to the Gallipoli Campaign.

Is it really that weird that Cody Bellinger does not know who Jerry Seinfeld is?

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Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger has been tearing through the league so far this season, blazing a 50-home run pace despite not even making his debut until April 25. His Dodgers are winners of 10 games in a row, sit in first place and have the best record in the National League.

But not everything is rosy in Cody Bellinger land. He’s now at the center of controversy after he revealed on SportsCenter on Friday night that he doesn’t know who Jerry Seinfeld is. Or, at the very least, that he could not put a face with that familiar-sounding name and that in no event did he know why he was famous.

People have been going crazy with this, acting as if he’s from Mars or something for not knowing who starred in one of history’s most popular and influential sitcoms. His teammates, especially, have been getting on his case:

I dunno. On the one hand, sure, the show was amazingly popular and has been in heavy syndication for like 20 years so it would be hard to miss even for a young guy like Bellinger. And, of course, the catchphrases and bits of the show that has seeped into the popular culture have given it a longer shelf life than most TV shows ever manage.

On the other hand the thing ended when he was not yet three years old. For him, “Seinfeld” was like “The Beverly Hillbillies” for someone my age or “M*A*S*H” for someone born in the early 80s. Those shows were just as popular — actually, they got higher ratings and were seen by a larger percentage of the population than “Seinfeld” ever was — and they were just as heavily syndicated for the decade or two after they went off the air. We don’t get on the case of players born in the 70s or 80s for not knowing who Alan Alda or Buddy Ebsen are. And if it’s about the catchphrases, substitute in “Happy Days” and “Welcome Back Kotter,” each of which created a cultural footprint larger than the show itself. Would we freak out if we found out that Jayson Werth — born in 1979 — had never heard the phrase “Up your nose with a rubber hose” or “Sit on it?”

And that’s before you acknowledge how much more fragmented pop culture and entertainment is now. I was 12 in 1985 and back then I had little choice but to watch “M*A*S*H” reruns at 7pm while I was waiting for prime time. It was either that or “Wheel of Fortune” I guess. As a 12-year old in 2007, Bellinger could’ve easily avoided “Seinfeld” reruns. He could’ve avoided TV altogether and just been online. My son is 12 now and he hasn’t watched an actual TV show in years. It’s all You Tube and stuff. The idea that there is any one thing or even a handful of things that, culturally speaking, we can all agree upon or which can serve as a common touchstone is an increasingly obsolete idea.

Maybe “Seinfeld” is different. Maybe this is not the same as not knowing “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “M*A*S*H”. I floated this whole idea on Twitter yesterday and people were outraged, so perhaps something else is going on here that I’m missing. But personally speaking, I feel like we should all calm down a bit about Cody Bellinger and the “Seinfeld” thing. Maybe we should acknowledge that the stuff we like is not going to be culturally prevalent forever. And that young kids like Cody Bellinger are going to be the ones to inform us of this inescapable fact.