Battle of the Sexes thrives as a crowd-pleasing sports story with charm to spare, even as it sugarcoats the real-life events that inspired it.
In the year 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is both a tennis player operating at the height of her game and a fearless crusader for gender equality, in particular when it comes to equal pay for male and female tennis players. At the same time, now-retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) finds himself yearning to relive his glory days and struggling to deal with his love of gambling and hustling. The pushback against King and the women’s liberation movement in general soon inspires Riggs to set a hair-brained scheme in motion, with the idea being that he will play King in a tennis match in order to determine the winner of the “Battle of the Sexes” once and for all.
At first, King casually rejects Riggs’ offer, having far more important matters (both professional and personal) that are preoccupying her mind at the moment. However, when Riggs stages a successful comeback by defeating the current number-one ranked female tennis player in the U.S. right ahead of King, the latter realizes that she has no choice but to participate in Riggs’ sideshow and face-off with him on the court. With the pressure now on, King finds that she not only wants to win this match in order to keep her cause alive and thriving, but also to prove something to herself and her own sense of self-worth.
Inspired by the real-life Riggs v. King tennis match that took place in 1973 and was itself dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes” by the event’s promoters, the movie Battle of the Sexes is a feel-good sports dramedy that was written by Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and directed by Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Together, the trio dive into both the personal issues and politics of the showdown between Riggs and King on the tennis court, handing them with both sensitivity and a sense of showmanship geared towards making the whole thing entertaining. Battle of the Sexes thrives as a crowd-pleasing sports story with charm to spare, even as it sugarcoats the real-life events that inspired it.
While Emma Stone and Steve Carell share top billing for Battle of the Sexes, the film is really the story of Billie Jean King and how she was essentially forced to take a public stand against a self-admitted male hustler in the struggle for gender equality – at the same time that she was undergoing an awakening in her personal life, with respect to her sexual orientation. The subplot in the film about the then-married King’s affair with a woman at the time of her “battle” with Riggs is handled delicately, but is left under-developed as the movie dances around the messiness of the situation in order to keep the focus more on King’s historical significance as a major figure in the 1970s women’s liberation movement. Stone and her costar Andrea Riseborough (Birdman) nevertheless have good screen chemistry and ensure that the romance between King and her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett, has some real emotional impact, despite it being too neat and tidy for its own good.
Plenty of comparisons have already been drawn between the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the public circus show that was the “Battle of the Sexes”, but the film itself draws no such direct parallels and instead leaves it to the audience to note the similarities as they so choose (or don’t). Stone and Carell do their own part to make their versions of King and Riggs feel like real people and not mouthpieces for the movie’s themes, in the process adding yet another pair of strong performances to their respective belts. Battle of the Sexes‘ exploration of King’s personal insecurities (namely, how they both fuel and conflict with the pursuit of her ideals as a professional athlete) is aided by a heartfelt and thoughtful turn from Stone. The film goes less in-depth with its examination of how Riggs’ egotism drives his own behavior and is the ultimate source of his problems (since, as his wife points out, he doesn’t actually believe in his own “cause”) – making him something of a flimsy foil to King despite the hefty amount of humor and heart that Carell brings to his role.
In some ways, however, Riggs is meant to come off as a weak antagonist, since the real villain in Battle of the Sexes is systematic gender-based prejudice and the world that rewards Riggs for his clownish behavior, in the film’s historical setting. Much of the best social commentary in the movie comes not from the exchanges between King and characters like the chauvinistic tennis player-turned promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) or Riggs’ supporters, but rather from the casual sexism that informs the everyday conversations and dialogue in the film. Battle of the Sexes does a good job of bringing its period setting to life in other respects too, dressing up its cast in costumes and hairstyles that reflect the fashions of the ’70s without being in-your-face about it. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren likewise uses retro camera shots and a grainy visual texture here that brings to mind his similar approach to generating the look and feel of the ’70s in American Hustle. The film’s aesthetics don’t really break new ground for historical dramas set in that decade (think also Argo), but they are suitably handsome and refined in their own right.
Purely as a sports story, Battle of the Sexes doesn’t offer too many surprises or shocking twists; even those moviegoers who don’t already know going in how things played out between King and Riggs in real life will probably be able to guess where everything is headed, ahead of time. Fortunately, Beaufoy’s script spends more time developing its characters and less time attempting to draw out the tension surrounding the big game in the movie’s third act, as well as the more dramatic events that build up to it. Character actors such as Sarah Silverman and Alan Cummings help to further enliven the proceedings with their colorful supporting performances as the women tennis players’ promoter Gladys Heldman and their fashion designer Ted Tinling, respectively – further ensuring that the movie remains enjoyable and engaging even as it follows a predictable trajectory.
In the end, Battle of the Sexes is a very watchable and likable sports story, if also one that doesn’t quite live up to the revolutionary spirit of its real-life protagonist. The movie successfully shines a light on timely issues of gender in society without being preachy, but arguably smooths over the rougher edges of its subject matter too much for its own good. At the same time, Battle of the Sexes is a proper crowd-pleaser and should offer enough substance to satisfy both general moviegoers and cinema buffs who are eager to keep up on their awards season releases. Let the battle begin, indeed.
Battle of the Sexes is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 121 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.
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