(Photo via Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Battle of the Sexes was one of the films I was looking forward to the most going into the fall movie season. Not only did it showcase the incredible true story of Billie Jean King playing Bobby Riggs in a exhibition tennis match in 1973. The match was significant not only for King beating the tennis legend, but an important step in the women’s rights movement, which King has spent her whole life fighting for. This is such an important story given the times that we live in, and I was excited to hear that Emma Stone would be playing King and Steve Carell playing Riggs in the film adaptation of this story. While their performances are great, as are the rest of the performers in the film, the film never meets its full potential, which is a shame. Battle of the Sexes is pretty good, but it could’ve easily been great.
As mentioned before, the film chronicles the story of Riggs challenging King to an exhibition match, the “Battle of the Sexes”. Riggs, an extravagant and over-the-top has-been, embraces the male chauvinist pig character that has been pinned on him by himself and other women. King, among the other female professional tennis players (led by a really fun Sarah Silverman performance) have been fired by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) of the ATP, who finds their quest for equal pay to be insulting.
The film was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo behind Little Miss Sunshine, and the screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Slumdog Millionaire et al.). There is talent both in front of and behind the camera, but the talent behind the camera can’t really keep up with the talent on screen, if that makes sense. The film itself feels a little by the books in its formula and its storytelling techniques (some sports movie cliches here and there, as well as some other cliches that tend to bog down biopics of this nature). It’s a bit of a shame because I really wanted to love this movie, but I just couldn’t quite get there.
However, this doesn’t mean that the film is bad by any means, in fact it’s quite good. For one, it features the best performance of Emma Stone’s career (far better than her Oscar-winning role in La La Land) as Billie Jean King. Stone brings a kind of human and passionate nature to this role that only she could do, and one that perfectly encaptures the spirit and person that is King. This is seen in the sequences between her and Andrea Riseborough‘s character, a hairdresser from Los Angeles that King begins an affair with, and the sequences with her teammates as she’s incredibly driven to make sure that they are fairly paid and respected in a 1970’s world where the women’s right movement is moving very rapidly. It’s a bit of a shame that some of King’s storyline isn’t perfectly represented, but that’s mainly due to a bit of a lackluster screenplay and not by Stone’s fantastic performance. Don’t be surprised if you see Stone nominated for a whole bunch of awards for this performance come the end of this year/beginning of next year. The same can be said for Steve Carell, who continues to do some of the best work of his career in the role of Bobby Riggs. The role could’ve easily been played off as cartoonish and an old sexist pig out of touch with the times, but Riggs is very much a human character in this film. Meaning that he genuinely cares about his wife (Elizabeth Shue) and his two kids (the eldest played by Lewis Pullman, the real-life son of Bill), and it nearly kills him when his wife kicks him out of the house early on in the film because of his gambling habit. He loves the limelight, but Riggs cares about those two things more than anything else.
If this film had been much smaller, with a smaller cast and production budget, I think many of the problems I’ve briefly touched on would’ve been much better appreciated. The sequences between Stone and Risenborough are meant to be the emotional center of the film, in how Stone is coming to grips with her sexuality and how it effects her and everyone around her, but it’s never fully realized. Maybe the film’s PG-13 rating prevented the filmmakers from further exploring that (which is ridiculous to think that in 2017 proper LGBT+ representation in film could only be seen in R-rated films like Moonlight, but you’d be surprised), or something, but I wish it was. There are little subplots introduced here and there about King’s affair with the hairdresser made public (either by teammates or something along those lines), but they’re just abandoned and never brought up again. And if the film had trimmed maybe 25 minutes off, I think this would’ve made for a really special and terrific movie.
I recommend going to see Battle for the Sexes just for the performances by Stone and Carell. This is a really fantastic story, but the film doesn’t entirely do justice to this story or King. It’s still well made film, with some fun supporting performances by the aforementioned performers and some fun with the 70’s era/tone of the film. It’s a solid film, but not a great one.