2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming | directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris | 2hrs 1min |
Studio Pitch: The true story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ promotional match where a tennis game turned into a social fight with gender equality at stake.
One of the great modern Hollywood mysteries to me is why directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dalton work so rarely. Battle of the Sexes is only their third film since blasting on the scene with Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that defined a decade of quirky indie films, with Ruby Sparks sandwiched in the middle. Where Sparks leaned even further into niche indie territory with it’s surreal concept of an LA writer who creates his own girlfriend, Battle of the Sexes swings entirely the other way into a full mainstream commercial appeal film full of stars, cameos and a broadly drawn portrayal of piggish men and strong women that seeks audience approval.
In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) rose to the top of the tennis circuit, but when the league refused to pay out the women’s championship at equal prize money to the men’s tournament she broke away with some of the best female players in the world and they scraped together their own league. Meanwhile, former champion and current gambling-addicted hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) crawls his way back into the spotlight by arranging a promotional tennis match in which he will go up against King to push back the tide of bra-burning feminists and prove that man is still the figurative king.
If I thought I had an idea of the kind of voice and vision Dayton and Faris were trying to build with their filmography after Sunshine and Sparks, Sexes throws all that out the window, although I can see their take on this story vs. how it would play in other hands. Imagine, an Aaron Sorkin version of Battle of the Sexes, focused more on the logistics of the final battle itself, how Riggs turned the whole thing into an absurd farce, sharply traded dialogue as they negotiate the terms and lofty speeches about the history of feminism and gender politics. Dayton and Faris take a much more character-focused approach. For better or worse, their explanation for the arc put King and Riggs on a collision coarse with each other is found in complications in their love lives. Riggs whose gambling issues get so out of hand he is tossed out by his wife (Elizabeth Shue) and King who finds herself in an affair with the team hairdresser (Andrea Risenborough, Oblivion) and struggling with her own sexual identity even as the weight of representing an entire nation of female capability is hoisted on her shoulders.
The film has quite a winded wind-up, feeling at least 20 minutes longer than it actually is, while the directors feel through King’s struggling love story for most of the first half. Stone is excellent in the role, conveying King’s awkwardness perfectly. Carell is also great, too charismatic and funny to allow Riggs to turn into a chauvinist caricature. Carell plays Riggs’ baiting of King as a provocateur showman willing to make himself a villain for money in a 3-ring circus that he doesn’t take seriously and doesn’t understand the stakes. Though that’s not to say that the film doesn’t have it’s share of over-the-top displays of ugly sexism, that task is mostly handled by Bill Pullman as feminist-fighting league owner Jack Kramer who the movie portrays as a fragile male ego struggling to hold onto supremacy. Everyone here is right on.
The final tennis match is given it’s due and shot with minimal cuts in a way that has tension and doesn’t look easily faked. I also appreciated that Battle looks like a movie set in the 70s without hanging a lampshade on every dated piece of culture or technology and coming off like a sketch of the 70s. It resists the urge to wink and nod at things to come.. that is until the very last line spoken by Alan Cumming. The film sends us out on a note that feels tacked on, as if it was building up to one thing and then switched to another at the last minute based on contemporary social politics. In structural terms it’s a payoff that isn’t at all set up or earned.
Battle juggles King’s struggles with sexism and her own sexuality but also slides in her life-long commitment to the game of tennis. At one point her husband, Larry King, says that anyone she loves will ultimately take a backseat to the game. It’s a multi-faceted portrayal that this movie doesn’t quite have the focus to wrap together into a clear final statement. The movie wants King’s journey to be about women and LGBT rights and athletic passion, but muddles it all together into a haze that can’t decide if it wants to say something or just recount the details of this crazy true story. It feels like if you asked Dayton and Faris what the most interesting thing about Billie Jean King is, they would say “Everything!”