By Brad Haynes
Battle Of The Sexes
★★1/2 out of ★★★★
Battle of the Sexes, the chronicle of the tennis battle between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the seventies, has just now made it to the big screen (a 2001 TV movie starred Holly Hunter and Ron Silver), decades after women’s “libbers” felt a boost of (spoiler alert) victory when King defeated her chauvinistic partner in Houston’s Astrodome.
It was the age of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” and the time period is nicely captured on film. Unfortunately, Battle of the Sexes tries to take on a few too many battles itself, and in the end, winds up feeling somewhat disjointed.
That’s no fault of the film’s stars though. Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs put in some of the best work of their careers. Both King and Riggs were going through their own personal crises at the time of the match, and Stone and Carell capture the nuances of their personalities. Unfortunately for Carell, the film’s script gives the bulk of screen time to Stone’s King as she treads the waters of discovering her own true sexual identity and trying to maintain her position as a tennis champ.
Few mainstream films have explored a woman coming to terms with her sexual orientation, and Battle of the Sexes deftly explores King’s growing love for another woman, all while she is married to an incredibly understanding man (played by thoughtfully by Austin Stowell). As other woman Marilyn Barnett, Andrea Riseborough demonstrates strong chemistry with Stone and is key to making that portion of the story work as well as it does.
Riggs was battling his own demons as well. A former tennis pro with a gambling addiction, things are rocky in his marriage (nice to see a mature Elisabeth Shue as his wife Priscilla) and the match he sets up with King seems to be his ultimate gamble.
Unfortunately, the script by Simon Beaufoy tries to tackle a wide range of issues stemming from women’s rights to gay rights, and never seems to hone in on a true theme for the film.
Also troublesome is the film’s score, often times bombastic and overpowering, drawing attention to itself other than the action taking place on screen.
And even though we know the outcome of the match, the actual match is filmed extremely well, heightening the suspense as it grows to its conclusion. And you will wonder at film technology as it appears that Howard Cosell is really standing next to Natalie Morales (playing King’s fellow tennis colleague Rosie Casals).
In the end, Battle of the Sexes misses the mark on multiple points, but it still stands as a nostalgic vehicle for two stars both working at the top of their craft.
The Good: The performances, particularly Stone as King and Carell as Riggs, make the film.
The Bad: Writer Simon Beaufoy seems to have bitten off a little more thematically than he can chew.
Final Word: It may not stand as one of the better sports biographies of all time, but it’s definitely worth catching for the performances.
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales. Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris.
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity.