Minor Victory For ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ (Movie Review)

There are times when certain films acquire a different sort of position thanks to an altered context within the present. Hidden Figures felt like a movie that gained a lot of steam last winter thanks to being a positive film about black women in a time when that felt like something much needed in theaters. Battle of the Sexes feels like a movie that was being developed at one point in time but is now arriving in theaters following unexpected turns in history. That makes the crowd-pleasing elements all the more enjoyable, even if the film feels fairly paint-by-numbers, with not enough edge going beyond obvious thoughts of why certain ways of thinking are wrong.

Based on a true story, the film focuses on the build-up to an eventual 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (portrayed by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). During this period, King was the best female tennis player in the world, and the film clearly favors her and her cause the whole way through, even as it struggles to portray the drama in her life. Riggs was a very accomplished player in his own right, but also a gambler and chauvinist. While other male characters in this film hold onto an old-fashioned idea of what women are for in a sterner manner, Riggs proudly finds joy in making fun of women, eventually leading him to challenge King to a match to prove just how superior he and mankind is.

As entertaining as Carell can be in this role (in a regressive, “those were the days” sort of way), the film’s refusal to truly vilify him takes away from his impact on the movie. Sure, you can love to hate the guy’s attitude, but Battle of the Sexes has it out for characters like Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, which means the real win comes from defeating a character off the tennis court, which is less cinematically exciting. Whether or not King beats Riggs, Carell is not given much of a chance to break the character out of the ridiculous, but harmless shell he begins with.

As mentioned, however, the focus is clearly on King and her struggles, which is fine. Directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) find plenty of ways to build up to the match by delving into what caused King and the other women tennis players to split from the established professional league and start their own. It actually would have been more interesting to see the technical side of this playout, as Sarah Silverman’s role as King’s manager could have been a larger presence in showing the struggles of pulling this off. Instead, the film goes more into King’s desires and struggles with her husband (a perfectly pleasant and bland Austin Stowell) and her secret lover portrayed by Andrea Riseborough, who has no real character beyond one or two characteristics (she is a hair stylist and does what she wants).

Given how the film seems intent to deliver on the big match between King and Riggs, it’s not as though it’s not good to see who King was. However, the film is intent on telling you so much about her that certain supporting characters end up feeling adrift and the scenes focused on Riggs (especially in the first half) appear to pop up at random.  A tighter focus or more evenly portraying both sides (which, again, would perhaps give Carell more of a chance to shine beyond doing a good impression), could have benefited the overall story.

It’s not as though there isn’t a good story to tell here. The real-life events, which continue to be relevant, allow for the various successes found in the film to ring truer when they occur. That said, it never feels like Battle of the Sexes manages to do anything all that more effectively than the 70s-set Anchorman, when that film decided it was dealing with gender equality. That’s not meant as a knock (Anchorman is awesome for a variety of reasons), but just because a film has a prestige feel to it doesn’t mean it’s automatically better at themes or subtext.

Still, there is plenty to root for in this film. Stone is very good as King, a quieter and more contemplative character to go against many of the louder voices in this movie. Dayton & Faris also pull off their most visually impressive film yet, complete with some solid editing choices to best reflect the opposing sides of a situation and, as usual, some clever work incorporating the actors into the past. There’s also the final tennis match and the sports movie aspect of this film. An entire tennis match is not the most cinematically exciting, so the movie’s decision to hold back from showing too much of the sport until the final game works to its advantage. Music by Moonlight’s Nicholas Britell does not hurt at all either.

Battle of the Sexes hits a bit harder because of just how justifiably highly the film chooses to look at King’s cause. It falters by having a lot of material to get through in a relatively familiar way when it comes to biographical comedy-dramas. Still, the cast does a fine a job, and there is fun to be had at seeing a recreation of the show that Bobby Riggs actually put together for this televised prime-time match.

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