Battle of the Sexes review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Indeed, the legendary tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was a Battle of the Sexes. Namely, a fight to prove that women could not only compete in the big leagues of tennis but triumph over the old guard of sexist and flawed male players. It’s just a bit of a shame that the story more as David and Goliath turn into little more than the expected movie about feeling good with how far women have come with the artificial sweetener of drama, passion, and courage.
There’s little doubt that the strongest component is the starring duo, both fitting the 1970s era well with their thick glasses, curly hair, and toothy grins. Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King as a young and plucky player, struggling to maintain that cheerful approach when the tennis league wants to pay them less and kick them out if they say otherwise. Figuring to quit instead of be fired, she goes about assembling her own female tennis organization, with the help of her more biting friend (Sarah Silverman) that can easily handle tough negotiations. Her road to independence isn’t easy, taking her on the road with long nights away from her husband and many practice sessions.
Her rising career contrasts with that of Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, on the downward slope of his fame. He spends more time betting, partying and popping pills than genuinely practicing or spending time with his family. It doesn’t take a genius to see the route he is headed for. In fact, you can almost set your watch to when he’ll lose his wife and kid and when he’ll lose the epic showdown between him and King.
The film proceeds more by design than by peering into the deeper nooks of this story. We don’t get to know too much about the key players past the rather light interpretations, never too fearful with King and never too slanderous with Riggs. We’re meant to watch Riggs fall, but in an odd manner where you’re not sure whether to laugh, feel pity, or root for his failure. A human approach, perhaps, but still very distant. And while King doesn’t ever fully embody a major sense of weight on her shoulders, Stone brings out some of that passion in the more tender scenes of her affair Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The questioning of her sexuality in these very intimate scenes are so effective I wished the whole movie was about their relationship, which it seems like it could have been considering the film’s blunt end message about homosexuality’s long road to acceptance.
Aside from the fantastic performances, Battle of the Sexes is a rather mild picture of what could have been a film with real teeth for the material rather than a light affair fit for clapping the theater when the epilogue texts fade in. The tennis scenes are decent, the story itself is decent, even the style of the era is decently faithful. But a title as bold of Battle of the Sexes feels as though it should be much more than a pleasant skirmish of athletic forces with a hollow sense of theatrics for the big match.