'Battle of the Sexes'
A pop feminist dramedy is just the ticket for a crowd-pleasing awards bait picture. With writer Simon Beaufoy (‘Slumdog Millionaire’) and co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (‘Little Miss Sunshine’) in charge of bringing a true story to the screen, you can be certain those crowds will indeed be pleased. Unfortunately, the film is also about tennis and not even the filmmakers seem to think that sport has cinematic potential. Still, it’s a fun and charming little movie.
‘Battle of the Sexes’ is all about the infamous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). King was a remarkable tennis player who made huge moves for equality in the sport, eventually spiraling off to start her own all-women tennis league. Riggs was a damn good player himself, but was mostly a really good con man and hustler. When King’s league took off, Riggs got an idea. He’d challenge King to a match, then go on a wild and possibly ironic press tour as a showboating chauvinist. That quickly turned into a media circus. A Battle of the Sexes, pitting old-school shitty ’70s dudes (see ‘Anchorman’, but not as silly) against the Women’s Lib movement, was staged. Oh, and King also slowly discovers herself and falls in love with a woman for the first time, to add some extra feels.
The good news is that ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is quite funny, cute and endearing. Faris and Dayton find a nice mix of gentle laughs, politics and truths. Despite being loaded with subject matter that’s particularly zeitgeisty right now, the film doesn’t particularly do anything daring. The gender politics are clear with no gray areas. Characters are either kind (if broken) or cruel without much of a messy middle.
Carell is hilarious as a self-destructive showman and chauvinist, with just enough empathetic traits to avoid being loathsome. Stone is solid and hits all the right inspiring notes. The supporting cast either get laughs (particularly a chain-smoking Sarah Silverman) or fit into the clearly delineated lines of morality and politics. The film is shot in a charming retro style with delightfully goofy costumes and a ’70s pop soundtrack to keep things grooving. It’s fun. It’s sweet. It works.
The trouble is that there’s untapped potential here. A coming-out subplot in which King falls in love with a woman is so chaste for public consumption that it’s not romantic or carnal enough to register. It’s more of an extra inspirational plot device than anything else. Likewise, Riggs’ character had potential to be a tragic relic or a critique of the lost chauvinist uncomfortable with how the world changed, but instead he’s just a harmless goof and the other men are too cartoonish for psychological depth. Toss in a dull Tennis climax that not even the filmmakers seem to find particularly dramatic and you’ve got a glossy prestige dramedy that shoots straight for the middle and never rises above competence. But it’s cute and fun and hits all the right progressive notes to feel inspirational. That’s fine. It’s just a shame the movie isn’t more than fine.