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The Problem With Saints

On the lifeless Jackie Robinson biopic 42. Plus, Danny Boyle's twisty Trance.

Whenever it is that an icon passes from being human to being a saint is the point at which it’s probably too late for a good movie. All you get is the lessons learned and very little of the naturalism or idiosyncrasy or personality that made the person iconic in the first place. Or you get all that courtesy of a great performance, but then there’s no filmmaking or storytelling to support it. You rarely get both acting and an angle, the way you did, say, with Walk the Line and Lincoln. It’s usually that the subjects mean so much to the filmmakers that they can’t bring themselves to take the subjects out of their historical packaging and play with them, lest they lose their value.

That’s the Jackie Robinson situation. In 1950, Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story, which was basically a hero giving a feel-good book report on himself. He’s been in bubble wrap ever since. But after turning down other movies, including one Spike Lee and Denzel Washington wanted to make, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, finally said yes. So 66 years after Robinson became the first black major league baseball player, here we are with 42, which has been made with such reverence for Robinson’s importance that Robinson is barely there.

Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale) wrote and directed this movie, which concentrates on Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and sometime after the halfway point he lays out his angle. It’s Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and for each at-bat against the Phillies, Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) leaves the dugout and proceeds to call him “n—– ” the way you’d call your dog into the house. It’s a good scene that goes on long enough to leave a simmer in your blood. And after he pops up during his next-to-last at-bat, with Chapman still going, Robinson leaves the plate, steps down into the tunnel beside the dugout, howls out his rage, smashes a bat, and crumples to the ground.

While he’s crumpled, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the Dodgers general manager who hired Robinson, appears and proceeds to explain that his controversial hire can’t get mad since that’s what the bigots expect. There’s too much riding on his player for him to run out of cheeks to turn. (But Robinson already knows this. In one of his first scenes, he calmly but tensely threatens to go elsewhere for gas after the white service station manager refuses to let him use the bathroom.) Rickey’s pep talk puts Robinson in the movie’s thematic place. His function is only curative: “You’re medicine, Jackie.”

42 is a Hollywood movie about American racism in which the objects of that racism must summon their most noble selves. Helgeland, who’s white, doesn’t imagine how it must have felt being slurred as relentlessly as Robinson was. So Robinson serves as a lesson not in triumph, but in tolerance. This is the sort of movie in which Jackie and Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) don’t have to change. White America does. That’s great for messaging, but hell on drama.

All the changing here happens to the players and the management of the Dodgers organization. Helgeland skillfully writes around the problem of how white racism affects non-racist whites. And he’s a smart, sensitive-enough writer to make this an interesting, worthy emotional pursuit. The players draft an anti-Robinson petition not long after his arrival, and one by one find themselves changing their minds. Robinson was never a problem for Pee Wee Reese, whom Lucas Black plays, but when the Dodgers wind up in Cincinnati, he shows Rickey a threatening letter someone wrote him and worries that his relatives in Kentucky will go bananas. Then Rickey shows Reese the pounds of hate mail that Robinson gets, Reese goes out on the field, puts his arm around his teammate, and lets the crowd savor the image. Having an actor play Robinson makes sense for realism, but most of the time a piece of cardboard with Robinson’s likeness would have done the trick.

Boseman has very little to do that makes Robinson a character. His best scenes are usually somewhere on the baseball field. The challenge in them for an actor is to find a way to combine Robinson’s athleticism with his joy at being an athlete. He puts some cocky comedy into his base stealing and a little bit of sex into the performance. Beharie is a strong, charismatic actor who needs a great role. (Here she’s playing a great woman, and that’s not the same thing.) Most of the other black characters, like the sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), have nothing to them but their goodness. Smith is turned into a glorified butler for Robinson. And there’s an embarrassing couple of scenes with a precious tyke who, we’re told during the closing credits, will grow up to be Ed Charles, who played for the Mets and Athletics. He explains plays for his mother, but is played by the kind of child actor who gives you cavities.

Most of the funny and insightful stuff falls to actors like Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight, Hamish Linklater, Max Gail, and even Tudyk. Ford, meanwhile, turns jowly and growly to play Rickey. He doesn’t have the suffocating hardship of upholding a legacy because Helgeland has given him all the self-congratulatory stuff to play. Ford can get high and mighty with all the grandstanding he gets to do because Rickey here is right. He’s shamelessly entertaining in chewing everybody out and cheering everybody up. But by lifting up Ford and Rickey, the movie makes Robinson beside the point.

It’s possible that Helgeland is thinking past the matter of racism altogether. A lot of 42 feels like an allegory for how things might go for that first openly gay guy in a major league locker room — all the awkwardness about showering together and sharing rooms, the complaints about not wanting to play with someone who’s deemed different, the way that after a season of prolonged exposure everyone’s tune changes and the outcast is embraced. But whether Helgeland is thinking about Jackie Robinson or his to-be-determined gay counterpart, 42 ultimately doesn’t feel like a sports drama as much as it does an epic commencement speech.

42
One reason to love Danny Boyle is that we’ll never have to put up with a Jackie Robinson movie from him. Or if it comes to that, he’ll find an imaginative reason to do it. Last summer, he had James Bond throw Queen Elizabeth out of a helicopter to open the Olympics. He gets off on his irreverence.

Trance is high-order, film noir nonsense that takes Boyle back to the thrillers he made at the start of his career with John Hodge (he wrote Trance, too), like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, that were preoccupied with the grimy corners of the psyche. Boyle’s no longer a grimy filmmaker. He likes sleek, icy images that seem launched from cannons and slingshots or pushed through syringes. 

Trance concerns an auction-house art heist that goes south when the job’s inside man, an auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy), takes a shot to the head that erases his memory of where he put the Goya painting he helped steal. The ringleader is a guy named Franck (Vincent Cassel), one of those elegant thugs who surrounds himself with a trio of goons that do the bone-breaking while he sips cognac or whatever. When it’s clear that Simon suffers from honest-to-goodness amnesia, Franck lets him select a hypnotist to help him retrieve the memory. 

You suspect the movie’s up to no good because Rosario Dawson plays the shrink Simon picks. There’s no reason to ask us to believe Dawson as a medical professional unless she can turn that belief on its head. Eventually, this woman talks her way into Franck’s criminal circle. She argues that Simon doesn’t feel safe remembering where he’s put the painting because he knows Franck and his friends will just kill him when he does. What ensues is group hypnosis, some sex, and two or three changeups that don’t twist the plot so much as reroute and rewire the movie. 

This is Boyle’s first movie set entirely in London since 2003’s 28 Days Later … , and his affinity for affixing his camera to everything speaks to the city’s reliance on closed-circuit surveillance. He’s working with the editor Jon Harris and his usual cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, and they give the movie the exhilarating attention-deficit disorientation that Boyle has turned into a legible cinematic language. Symmetrical reflections in glass that turn into a living Rorschach, a hypnosis head trip that requires use of an iPad to extend the trip, the vaginal lattice of a highway overpass at night: His eye is manic without ever descending into madness. 

Besides, the script, which Hodge wrote with the science fiction TV writer Joe Ahearne, goes crazy enough. At some point, you don’t know whom to trust or what’s real or why anybody is doing what they’re doing, but McAvoy, Dawson, and Cassel work well together. Dawson is required to put her nude body to incoherent if not gratuitous use, but she’s also perfectly plausible when discussing the rare psychological state of extreme suggestibility. Even after the movie has gone off the deep end and into a moral pit, you’re not sure whether it makes any sense. By then, Boyle has fried enough of our senses that Simon’s extreme suggestibility is contagious.  

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris