Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are two of the most loved darlings of the festival circuit, their breakout hit Little Miss Sunshine so successful that it changed the image of both the Sundance Film Festival and American indie movie making as a whole. After the mixed reception to their 2012 follow up, Ruby Sparks, the directing duo are back in more obviously crowdpleasing mode with Battle of the Sexes. A sports film, morality tale, love story, and underdog comedy all in one, this true tennis tale is a (very entertaining) mess, but fantastic performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell see it past the finish line.
The eponymous conflict was a hugely hyped 1973 tennis match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Stone) and washed up legend and showboating chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Carell). Watched live by 90 million people, this exhibition match was far more than just a shot at a title and its prize money. Billie Jean was fighting for equal pay for female players, more societal respect for women in general, and even for her own self-acceptance of her burgeoning love for the vivacious hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). It’s actually this love story, rather than any sort of rivalry, that drives much of the film, with Billie Jean and Bobbie kept apart for most of the runtime.
This is a far less confrontational film than the title suggests. Yes, Bobby’s misogyny is vile, and the fact that he’s only doing it for publicity makes it no better, especially when the other powerful men in tennis are true believers in the sexist nonsense he spouts, but despite wanting to be seen as one, he’s not a cartoon monster. Writer Simon Beaufoy gives him a real sense of pathos, a depth that Carell repays with a layered performance, funny and mournful, that only he could have pulled off. In any other actor’s hands, we’d hate Bobby completely and have a far weaker film.
Though it is very predictable – a film like this only gets made with one possible ending – Billie Jean’s journey, from winning worldwide stardom to forming her own Women’s Tennis Association, is highly entertaining, and its very satisfying to see her triumphs. The final match – shot mostly from the spectators’ point of view as a concession to the fact that tennis is not particularly cinematic – is an uplifting highlight, both players an underdog in their own right in a neat subversion of most sport story finales.
Its in its lack of commitment to any one genre that Battle of the Sexes finds its greatest fault. For the most part, it’s really enjoyable, but when the time comes to land a real emotional hit, it hasn’t built up enough power from any one of its angles for it to really stick, and the big laughs are too few and far between to label it an out and out comedy. There’s no denying that this is an important story, though, and to have it be so fun and accessible is absolutely the correct choice.
Stone and Carell anchor a great cast, with Sarah Silverman putting in a lively turn as Billie Jean’s manager, Bill Pullman suitably odious as commentator Jack Kramer, and fun cameos galore. Billie Jean’s story is one that deserved a sparkling, big-budget treatment, especially as we’ve still got so far to go in the realm of gender equality, and it’s easy to recommend Battle of the Sexes as a diverting biopic, even if it could have done with greater emotional depth.