Like the ostensibly unordinary back-and-forth dance that eyeballs engage in while watching a tennis match, so too does “Battle of the Sexes” breeze along fairly unspectacularly in telling the story of former tennis champion and feminist icon Billie Jean King.
And like a dramatic gaining of a point in tennis serves to remind the owners of those eyeballs that there is much more talent involved than they may realize, so too does Emma Stone turn in another forceful and endearing performance — one of the very best of the year, really — as King.
In the process, she gives the film — directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — a bit of redeeming quality. Not that “Battle of the Sexes” completely hits the net upon first serve, but it’s difficult to find very many things that separate it as an elite biographical offering, even as Stone plays and mesmerizes her way to potentially a second straight Best Actress nomination.
The story of Billie Jean King and her crusade against society’s ingrained sexism that sees her playing a nearly 30-years-her-senior Bobby Riggs is certainly a story that deserves to be told. King, a tennis champion in the early 70s who also championed equal wages for female athletes, also fought for LGBTQ rights later in life before becoming an early advocate for Title IX in sports, but the film doesn’t delve into that too much.
Instead, it focuses on her spirited drive to just get some damn respect. The method: Forming an all-women’s tournament to show that female athletes are just as big a draw as the men.
That later leads, by way of sheer, “Oh yes I can” attitude, to the iconic, real-life Battle of the Sexes — King’s match with former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, here portrayed by a seemingly hyperbolic but all too true-to-form Steve Carrell, who is channeling his inner Looney Tunes. That is, if Daffy Duck was deep down an egotistical, dogmatist brat who thought the world revolved around the XY chromosome.
Unfortunately for Dayton and Faris — as well as the audience — effectively contrasting Carrell’s cartoonish villainy with the very real (and very relevant issues) that the Battle of the Sexes represented is a tough endeavor. The film is made as authentically as possible, from the perpetual 70s cinematic tinge to the you-have-to-Google-it-to-believe-it antics of Riggs, and sometimes that works against it via uncomfortable tonal shifts.
The film breezes along for two hours, a perfectly fine Netflix watch that is mostly let down by its writing, but when Stone’s King is on screen, the film soars. Stone, fresh off a Best Actress triumph for “La La Land,” embodies everything about King — from her appearance to her confident glow to her personifying of a simple message: Women do belong on the same court as the men, and for the same wages.
But what the continually surprising Stone brings to the table feels restrained by lackluster writing; the script cheapens that important social commentary to where it feels almost tongue-in-cheek at times. And at others, especially in some early scenes, the fight for equality is presented in such black-and-white terms that you have to wonder why the struggle is ongoing for women decades later.
Thankfully, as the movie goes, it gets a little bit of a better handle on how complex the issue is, and just how cemented the psychology is that King is working to break through.
Carrell’s Riggs, meanwhile, hasn’t quite completely fallen from grace, but he sure is hitting every rung hard on the way down. On the cusp of a failing marriage and gambling addiction, he turns his attention to the headline-making King as the yin to her yang, the man who has no issues proclaiming to national media that his gender is superior.
The film wisely portrays Carrell as the one with seemingly nothing to lose and Stone with everything, raising the stakes of their historic match.
But even as Carrell and his feigned masculinity is one-half of the titular Battle, the film is largely driven by King’s journey, and her wrangling with the various things a professional athlete must contend with to be successful. An excellent Stone makes it a journey all the more heart-wrenching, and all the more inspiring.
With subtext that is uber-timely in a world where “pussy-grabbing” Trump is president, “Battle of the Sexes” does bring light to the subtle sexism that continues to pervade the world of sports (See: 2016 Olympic Games commentators).
But it’s the moments when that commentary is oversimplified that the film becomes self-defeating. The themes are important, but they’re tough to take seriously when the script’s portrayal of them borders on satire.
Dayton’s and Faris’s movie is still an entertaining time. It’s witty, with Sarah Silverman a standout as the organizer of the all-women’s tournament, and it truly breathes the era. It also doesn’t do anything particularly exciting for the biographical genre, as much as we hope it does with the importance of the character its story is centered on.
For as much a champion of women’s rights that King was, “Battle of the Sexes” burdens itself — and its message — by limiting the scope of her impact mostly to her feud with Riggs. And while that feud did come to represent her crusade against sexism at large, it still feels minimalized.
As a result, “Battle of the Sexes” feels like a triumphant one — it certainly has no trouble stating it is — but largely for reasons unknown, other than another stunningly spot-on turn by Stone.
“Battle of the Sexes” is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris