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One thought ran through my mind as I walked out of Battle of the Sexes last week, and I believe it will likely echo through most of the audience that will go to see the movie over the next month.
Was that what I thought it was going to be?
Honestly, we should have known, and when the movie went down one path more than another, I wasn’t surprised, but I did wonder how many people who went in expecting one story, then getting a second instead, would feel about the experience.
The movie is billed to be about Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, but that’s a secondary story in the grand scheme of things. What this film is truly about is Billie Jean King’s self-discovery of her own sexual preference. It’s much less about the “Battle of the Sexes” than it is a way to tell Billie Jean’s story of drifting away from her husband and into the arms of a female hairdresser.
While we do get plenty of Steve Carell, who is wonderful as the boisterous, over-the-top gambling addict, Bobby Riggs, had this film been marketed as a biopic about Billie Jean King, it might have been the better play. Once the movie gets Emma Stone’s Billie Jean into the right bed, it becomes much more effective and much more entertaining. When it’s focused on the lesbian angle, it’s a bit heavy handed and focuses on a love interest that doesn’t end up having much to do with King’s future.
It’s acted well and though portions of the front half are almost painfully slow, the movie is pretty decent, but it’s by no means an ace that clips the tape. It’s a competently told story, but one that contains far less pure fun than it could have otherwise. It was so much about Billie Jean King’s feminism and her sexual awakening that it never allowed itself to stop and enjoy itself for longer than a few minutes at a time. And, while Carell is fantastic, Emma Stone never rises past the level of “Emma Stone as Billie Jean King,” rather than an actress completely becoming the real-life subject.
Never at any point did I not see Emma Stone in the performance, and while she’s phenomenally talented, she was outshined this time out by her male co-star. Maybe that’s because Steve Carell is so reminiscent of Riggs, looks like Riggs, and has the right gestures and movements to sell the character. He was Riggs, while she played King. Emma Stone doesn’t particularly look much like Billie Jean, and thus her hill was a much steeper climb.
If you’re not interested in the sexual preference story, you may want to pass on Battle of the Sexes, because that’s almost two-thirds of the material, both subtly or in overt fashion. Again, the strongest part of the movie, by far, is when we do get to the buildup for Riggs and King, following Bobby’s annihilation of Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). The included tennis content is generally presented slower than fans might remember, but it works well with Riggs in his 50s and King being the more precision-based player that didn’t trade blazing ground strokes for long rallies.
Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, the hairdresser that ends up the other half of Billie Jean’s first lesbian relationship, and her first homosexual experience. She’s very good, but when we get to the end of the film and see a text-based history lesson, we find out she disappeared from view relatively quickly. She’s not even mentioned during the sequence. For that to be the case, it’s amazing how much screen time and script time her character receives during the 125 minute run time.
The movie is filled with solid performances, from Natalie Morales as Rosie Casals, a fellow player on the new WTA tour and the woman that called the King vs. Riggs clash alongside Howard Cosell, to Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, the man that booted King and her ilk from the United States Lawn and Tennis Association. Incidentally, Pullman is having a terrific 2017, having just finished up an excellent role on USA’s hit miniseries, The Sinner. Elisabeth Shue plays Riggs’ wife, Priscilla, and the movie also excels when the spotlight finds its way to how the gambling and love of money affected the marriage.
There’s a lot in Battle of the Sexes to like, but it would have been better at 1:40 than 2:01, and there are two other issues that bear discussion. Particularly in the first 45 minutes, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem obsessed with overdoing it with the soundtrack. You feel like you’re on rails, with period-appropriate tunes blasting constantly in the background. Especially considering the tenor of the first half of the film, many of the songs were unnecessary and incredibly distracting from the attempted themes and tone of the product.
Dayton and Faris are best known, outside of their work with various musicians, for directing 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which was easily one of the best films of that year. Their names made me more interested in how they might approach Battle of the Sexes, but although the direction is certainly no slouch, this movie is no Little Miss Sunshine.
Finally, there is not one single mention of any of the speculation or reports that Billie Jean King didn’t entirely win the match with Bobby Riggs in as pristine a fashion as it appeared. Through the years, we’ve heard that Riggs owed some unseemly loan sharks and mafia members large sums of money from his gambling debts, and it may have influenced the result of the match. There have been numerous theories about the match being rigged (no pun intended) and that Riggs was in on it.
While those thoughts have never been proven, the ideas could have been included, even as part of the text prior to the credits, but they aren’t. The movie displays Riggs as a gambling degenerate and a shameless hustler, both of which were true, but never ties those realities to what may or may not have happened on the court. This didn’t stun me at all, because the narrative the movie wants to tell is one of feminism and social awareness. The rigged story wouldn’t have played to the advantage of those concepts.
The reason to tell you all of these things is to make sure you understand going in what you’re going to get, because the trailers do a good job at selling King vs. Riggs, but that’s secondary to King’s story on its own in terms of how the movie is laid out. Make no mistake, it’s enjoyable, but it’s also going to be forgettable. Any thoughts that Battle of the Sexes might have lasting impact can be discarded, because this is very much a one-watch movie. You’ll see it, you’ll leave, and you’ll move on.
If that’s all you’re looking for, you’ll be happy with what you receive, because it’s delivered and presented well, and even though Stone’s King is Stone AS King, you’ll enjoy spending time with her, and you’ll really dig Carell. It tries to be more than a comedy, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. It’s a little long, a little ham-handed when it pushes agenda, but you can do much worse at the multiplex this weekend.
I can’t recommend it for everyone, but I’ll give it a C+ overall. I liked it, but I didn’t think about it for five minutes once it ended. That rating would assuredly be higher if the advertising and the positioning matched the finished effort. It didn’t. It’s not bait and switch, but those coming for the sports story are instead going to get much more non-sports propaganda than they bargained for. It’s not done poorly, the acting is generally strong, it’s shot well, and I was invested in the story, but I wanted more of Riggs and King than I got.