BATTLE OF THE SEXES Review

Going into directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' (Little Miss Sunshine) take on the legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973 I had no real idea of the historical context of the movie or even of the individuals involved and so, needless to say, I was about to get a history lesson from what is arguably the worst place to receive a history lesson: the movies. Still, if one can appreciate cinema as an art form to encapsulate a moment or a culmination of events-a cinematic summary if you will-rather than an accurate depiction of every detail surrounding certain subjects that tend to be true, then we should be okay. While I still don't know much more about the showdown between King and Riggs outside of what I learned in screening Battle of the Sexes what I can say and likely what is the best thing the film has to offer is the insight into just how average casual chauvinism was in that day and age. Without blinking, in one of the opening scenes, Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer-a former professional tennis player and head of the prestigious tennis association King and many of her female counterparts were members of-tosses out how much of a fact it is that men are not only faster and stronger than women, but more competitive by nature. That it's biology. The most revealing part being that Kramer doesn't actually mean this to be offensive because he doesn't think of it as being offensive, but rather that it is simply the truth. While this level of arrogance still exists and is likely even worse in some circles today (don't believe me, look at the YouTube comments on the trailers for this movie) it has been amplified to a defensive level because time has also allowed for women to gain more and more of the equality they seek and so rightly deserve. As a white male I always find it difficult to complain about anything as I've certainly never faced anything insurmountable in my life and while I don't want to make this movie review a discussion about where my opinion falls as far as women's rights and such it kind of shocks me a movie such as this is even considered something of a statement nearly forty-five years after the fact when one would imagine human intelligence might have moved on to understanding that women are better at some things than men and men are better at some things than women, but regardless we all deserve the same type and, more importantly, the same amount of respect. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, but if Battle of the Sexes is a rather by the numbers sports biopic it at least serves to show audiences how little we've actually progressed and how much farther we have to go.

Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) fight for women's equality.
© 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Battle of the Sexes opens by wasting an opportunity for a rather memorable title screen and it is with this lack of ambition toward highlighting even the simplest aspects of their film that it seemed Dayton and Faris might not be as excited about the material as I'd imagined a 1970's-set movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell that was based on a farce of a tennis match for one and a career-defining turn for the other might be. Given the screenplay comes from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, The Full Monty) I was hoping the script might contain some distinct perspectives on the event and on the characters that participated in particular. With Dayton and Faris not having directed a feature in five years I wondered if they might have taken the extended break due to the fact they were searching for another project in the vein of their previous work (Ruby Sparks) that really inspired them and made them approach story in a unique and fun way. It is certainly easy to see how the story of King and Riggs could serve as both a fun platform for experimenting with an abundance of filmmaking techniques and challenges while also being able to make a relevant statement in today's society, but rather than do anything singular with the material it's as if the directing duo were content with a straight adaptation of Beaufoy's (who has become something of a writer for hire as of late) screenplay which at least attempts to give the film an a few unexpected perspectives and insights by focusing more on King's story, the pressure and responsibility she must have felt towards so many, her tragic love affair with a hairdresser from Los Angeles in Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while still being married to a genuinely good man (Austin Stowell), and the all-around perpetration of her image not by her own free will, but by those she surrounded herself with. While the movie may be called Battle of the Sexes and does indeed structure itself well to build up to the titular match in a way that we're invested in the sport and the show of it all, make no mistake that this is a movie about Billie Jean King and not Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs or their relationship. That said, this isn't necessarily a disappointing route to have taken per Beaufoy's script, but it doesn't help that while Stone is in fine form as King and King's trials and tribulations are more worthy of the spotlight being shown on her, Riggs is certainly the more entertaining one.            

This brings us to the fact of how, despite the trailers positioning it as such, Battle of the Sexes or at least its characters are well of aware of the roles they are playing in the public eye and, while willing to, are doing so in order to make their agenda clear or simply make more money. While Stone's King is initially hesitant to take on Riggs for fear of becoming nothing but a joke in Riggs' circus of an environment she is eventually pushed to accept his offer after he defeats current women's world champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) and crowns himself the best women's tennis player in the world. Beaufoy's screenplay is surprising in this way in that it begins with the kernel of an incident that spurned King into really becoming a voice for women's equality and taking us through the challenges of creating the WTA, devising her own tournament with the help of manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), and not just discovering, but acting upon her sexuality. From this angle the movie serves King's vision well as it portrays her in a light that shows how passionate and serious she was about the game of tennis. There is even a line in the film where her husband, Larry, is talking to Marilyn and says, "We're both just side shows. Tennis is her true love and if you get between her and the game-you'll be gone." As Battle of the Sexes becomes more and more the Billie Jean King movie and as viewers become more and more wrapped up in the personal aspects of her life it is easy to forget about Riggs and his emotional arc, that is, until the match between the two of them becomes a real thing and then it's easy to see why Dayton, Faris, and Beaufoy likely chose to keep his involvement to a minimum until absolutely necessary as Carell steals the show. Furthermore, Riggs isn't the bad guy both the publicity for the match and for the movie have made him out to be and King knows this. For Riggs, this is all an act to drum up sponsorship's and viewers and as much money as he possibly can as the film makes more of an antagonist out of Pullman's Kramer as he's the one who genuinely doesn't feel women deserve a piece of his pie. Rather than assigning this role to Riggs, Beaufoy outlines his marriage with Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) with whom he has a son that he has a fantastic relationship with, but how he is also addicted to gambling and a good drink and how this causes rifts in their relationship for, despite Riggs trying and wanting to be what Priscilla desires, he can't help himself. There is one scene in particular between Carell and Shue that is one of the best moments in the movie as the two have the most adult discussion ever about the state of their relationship which only leads to us, as an audience, liking Riggs that much more.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) face off in the "Battle of the Sexes".
© 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
It isn't a problem that Battle of the Sexes positions both King and Riggs as appealing figures though, but rather the issue the film largely comes to face is that it doesn't transcend any of the expectations this story and the credentials they've acquired to tell this story would set. Both Carell and Stone are fantastic in each of their striking, but drastically different roles. Neither of them will get Oscar recognition for their work if that's what they were hoping for by transforming their looks though (those teeth, Carell!) and I also kind of wish the two of them would do a movie together where they actually share more than a couple of scenes together. Along with the leads, Stowell stands out in his understanding and wholly supportive role as King's husband, Riseborough is fantastic in walking the line as Marilyn, and a host of supporting players like Alan Cumming and Wallace Langham as the stylists for the women of the WTA, Eric Christian Olsen and Fred Armisen as different types of coaches to Riggs, as well as Superbad's Martha MacIsaac and television's Natalie Morales as fellow female tennis players that tour with and support one another fully are all great. Oh, and this is without mentioning the fact Chris Parnell, Matt Malloy, Jamey Sheridan, Mark Harelik, and John C. McGinley all show up at one point or another so, if nothing else, the film is fun to watch just to see who pop up. In all seriousness, there is no reason for Battle of the Sexes to be labeled a bad movie-it isn't. The production designers earn an A+ for scouting real locations that have kept their seventies architecture intact, Nicholas Britell's score is understated yet appropriate and deceptively effective while Dayton and Faris devise a cool aesthetic with their cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, American Hustle) that replicates the photography quality and style of the time-making the movie feel all the more of the period, but while everything is done competently and no doubt includes attempts at cultivating the story and its execution in ways that might serve the film to be more impactful and powerful there is that uncontrollable element of film that seems to have gotten away from the directors here. The duo may have very well done everything they could or everything they knew to do, but the stars still didn't align for their movie to be as exceptional as they hoped it to be. It's difficult to say the fault doesn't necessarily fall on anyone, but while the effort is there and the elements come together well enough the final product ultimately fails to stand as this monumental work about women's liberation, but rather is an informative and broadly entertaining re-enactment of the arm versus the mouth.