The most recent example of a good middlebrow movie is “42,” Brian Helgeland’s long-awaited movie about the trailblazing baseball player Jackie Robinson. Leaving naturalism and nuance behind, Helgeland staged “42” with a combination of nostalgia and dogged earnestness, giving 1940s Florida and Brooklyn the spit-shine perfection of a studio back lot and Robinson’s difficult story a gentle top-spin of consoling uplift.
The Robinson of “42” was undeniably idealized, shorn of psychological complexity and elevated (reduced?) to something of a secular saint.
But were I to knock “42” solely on that basis, I’d be lying about how pleasurable the movie is on a purely sensual, emotional level, how Helgeland’s prettified past throws into even sharper relief the vile abuse Robinson suffered, and how gratifying it is to see his story finally being told in a rousing, old-school version of the most important medium of our time.
The fact that Helgeland chose to make “42” using that medium’s most wholesome values shouldn’t be held against him. Rather, he deserves credit for that choice, and for making a film that, while sentimental and earnest, largely avoids being condescending (except when the director overplays Mark Isham’s treacly score). With “42,” Helgeland has made a classic middlebrow film in the best sense of the word: meaningful but not self-consciously profound; aesthetically safe; resolutely un-edgy in tone. (You won’t see heads blown off or needles in arms in a classic middlebrow film; profanity and nudity will be kept to a minimum.) Like its classic middlebrow forebears, “42” seeks to access our pleasure centers, but it does so by satisfying the audience’s desire for reassurance and resolution rather than exploiting it. It may not set out to blow our minds, but it doesn’t set out to insult them, either.
And it looks as if the gambit is working: “42” knocked it out of the park at the box office last weekend, earning $27.5 million and becoming the strongest-opening baseball movie in history. It bears noting that, like most but not all middlebrow movies, “42” is rated PG-13 — a category that gets little respect in a post-Tarantino era of “Bridesmaids” and torture porn. Just a few days ago, National Association of Theater Owners President John Fithian called on Hollywood studios to make fewer R-rated movies — for everyone’s good. (Nine out of 10 of last year’s top-earning films were rated G or PG-13.) “Make more family-friendly films and fewer R-rated titles,” Fithian told executives gathered at the movie industry trade show CinemaCon in Las Vegas. “Americans have stated their choice.”
Put another way: Mass is the new niche. In an increasingly fragmented media multiverse, being middlebrow may be downright subversive. Thanks to festivals, on-demand and funding mechanisms such as Kickstarter, the cinematic ecosystem will continue to find ways for the “Upstream Colors” of the world to thrive, just as lowbrow spectacle will never go away.
But a healthy ecology will also make space for movies that aren’t ashamed to meet their audience halfway without overreaching or underestimating. As “42” proves, you can admit you want to be liked and still deserve some love.