*** out of ****
(for some sexual content, partial nudity, and language)
Released: September 29, 2017 limited; expands October 6
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Austin Stowell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman, Elizabeth Shue, Jessica McNamee
Starting out as little more than activist hagiography draped in Boomer nostalgia, Battle of the Sexes initially appears to be a well-made history lesson, but a lesson nonetheless, with jabs of feminist snark (thank you, Sarah Silverman).
It’s not that these Equal Rights fights weren’t real, or that genuine obstacles weren’t faced, but it’s difficult to imagine they were this caricatured. The first act works as a populist crowd pleaser but, in being so, stacks the deck too broadly. Women are smart and progressive, men are sexist neanderthals. Check and check.
Fortunately, Battle of the Sexes evolves into a more nuanced and compelling portrait once it gets past establishing its agenda driven bona fides.
Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the events surrounding the then-biggest broadcast sporting event of all time (90 million people globally) that pitted former tennis great Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) against reigning female champ Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) in a match at the peak of the Feminist Revolution. Underlying this very public coverage was King’s private sexual awakening, as she came to terms with her identity as a lesbian.
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), along with their creative team, re-create the 1970s era with lush detail and absorbing energy, capped by some legitimately thrilling tennis in the climactic showdown. As it digs deeper into personal challenges of the two leads, however, Battle of the Sexes becomes an empathetic character study.
The sexual politics always remain in the very fabric of the film throughout, but when it serves as a backdrop rather than a soapbox, Battle of the Sexes is elevated from an adulatory depiction of a movement to a moving story about two people at a personal crossroads.
Riggs is an unabashed provocateur, making the challenge to King to “prove” on the court which gender is superior, but he’s also a man with a gambling vice that’s threatening his marriage. King bears the burden of being the poster girl for women’s tennis, equal pay, and gender equality while having to hide the very thing – being gay – that could compromise these fights and her credibility in validating them.
How these main figures are handled is a testament to the care, grace, and humanity the story grants, even in the context of its specific worldview. Riggs is a sexist, yes, but we come to see that, compared to others (like Bill Pullman’s misogynist sports commentator), he’s not ideologically driven. Riggs is a showman. The fun for him is more in the spectacle and the goading than it is in putting women in their place.
Indeed, Riggs isn’t the real antagonist here (the film saves that for anyone with uptight puritanical morals); he’s simply the foil. That doesn’t make him right, but it does make him human. Carell plays these dual layers brilliantly, and simultaneously.
For King, the struggle is very real between what she’s passionate about (tennis first, equality a close second) pitted against her own personal desires and longings. She must surrender the latter to not risk the former. Like Carell, the recent Best Actress winner Stone puts King’s humanity first, not limiting her to the iconic status of what King represented and stood for.
More generously, King sympathizes with her husband Larry (no, not that Larry King) rather than seeing him as a patriarchal obstacle, honoring his kindness towards her even as he’s understandably hurt by a betrayal he didn’t bargain for (and yet graciously comes to accept).
Yes, Billie Jean and Larry would eventually leave each other, but they didn’t forsake each other. That’s heartening to see, particularly in a movie that could’ve easily marginalized Larry – and their relationship – with all of the themes it was juggling.
By not shortchanging any of these facets, Battle of the Sexes delves deeper than the political and cultural overtones and into the internal and personal realities, giving the film’s title an appropriate double meaning.
Faris and Dayton still can’t resist telling this story through a filter of self-conscious contemporary hindsight (right down to a final “it’ll all be worth it someday” encouragement to King by her gay stylist, played well by Alan Cumming). That kind of on-the-nose affirmation undercuts authenticity for the sake of sentimentality.
These are minor blemishes, however, in a movie that primarily captures a time, place, and singular moment with entertaining drive and a charitable heart.