Battle of the Sexes, in name and historical story, appears to be a feminist film, and in a sense it is. Mostly, though, it is merely a safe movie about a feminist figure.
The crux of the film is the tennis match between self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and #1 women’s tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), but the action begins with an independent women’s tennis tournament circuit being borne out of a gender wage gap.
Given gender wage gaps are still a reality, this seems like the perfect platform for a film that has a contemporary message while still rooting its narrative in the casual misogyny of the time period. The latter is captured in cringe-worthy spades, even if it does make the narration of the film a tad obvious.
The cohesiveness of the film as something that is pertinent to the now falls apart, though, as the focus of the film wanders. Bill Pullman’s sleazy Jack Kramer and the strike against the wage gap fall by the wayside once the film hits its stride, and the stacked list of supporting characters (some played by comedy heavy hitters like Sarah Silverman and Fred Armisen, others by veteran actors like Alan Cumming and Elizabeth Shue) clutters the film unnecessarily.
Shue, in particular, is shoved into a corner of this movie. Playing Riggs’ affluent wife who is fed up with Riggs’ shenanigans, she seems a perfect character from which to draw real drama out of Riggs’ otherwise silly character arc. Instead, she is left hidden inside the gigantic Riggs household for the majority of the movie and is given only a scene or two to flex her acting muscles.
Beyond the lack of focus, the characterization of King and Riggs fails to deliver any sort of impact. When they are the characters that a given scene highlights, they are given strange character development for what the movie seems to want to accomplish.
The character of Riggs, in this sense, is actually somewhat fascinating. For one, Carell does sleaze and braggadocio so well that the cartoonish nature of Riggs’ public persona comes off as authentic. But the film also allows Riggs a sympathetic viewing, depicting him as a showman who merely performed on the wrong side of history. He is a lonely character who is invested in keeping his family together while also trying to juggle his loony celebrity personality.
Next to the in-your-face performance of Riggs, King at first appears much flatter as a character. She is given a love-triangle subplot that is interesting, especially as the film focuses on this much more than it does on the King-Riggs game that the title refers to. It gives King depth in that it complicates her motivations. At the heart of this is King’s struggle to be the best at what she does while also having meaningful relationships off the court.
Thus, Stone’s performance grows as the film moves along. She does a fairly good job capturing the internal struggle of King without any of it coming off obvious or forced.
Broadly, Battle of the Sexes misses something inherently entertaining in its central tennis match and something pertinent in its overall message. The climactic tennis game between King and Riggs feels more like a foregone conclusion or an obligation than a climax. And the implications of the match are felt solely in the film’s final image and line.
Throughout the rest of the film, there is a cluttered biopic with a safe approach to subject matter. From the love story to the patriarchal tennis association, there is little in the way of boldness or risk. What results feels rote and sanitized, a landmark historical event laundered by Hollywood and put out as a shiny clean product.
The struggle of the female tennis players, for example, is mainly telegraphed through platitudinal dialogue instead of genuine narrative stakes, as the film feels the need to set aside time to put half of the narrative weight on Riggs.
As much as the pieces—mainly the lead performances—make for a film that paces adequately given its clunky construction, the film as a whole doesn’t have the emphasis that it should or that it wants to have. If anything, it makes one yearn to watch a documentary on Billie Jean King before even considering watching Battle of the Sexes again.
Battle of the Sexes: B-
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)