Between its Oscar-nominated lead actors and a biographical tale that is still relevant to today’s society, Battle of the Sexes could have been one of the year’s best films. Sadly, its a biopic that doesn’t pack a lot of bite, ultimately spreading itself thin among its several areas of interest.
Based on a true story, Battle of the Sexes follows woman’s tennis star Billie Jean King, whose outspoken attitude towards gender equality in society leads her to create her own tennis association. King is soon challenged by tennis hall of fame Bobby Riggs to a match, with Riggs looking to get back in the spotlight after being far away from his glory days.
What’s frustrating about this film’s mixed results is the strength of the its core. Emma Stone gives one of her most subdued performances, but I would also say one of her best. Stone captures King’s tenacity for the game and civil rights, but also her confections about her identity. Steve Carrell stars alongside her, and while his presence in the movie is slighter than the trailers let on, he effortless captures Bobby’s outrageous personality, as well as his pathetic center. Both actors brings more depth to the characters compared to what’s on the page.
Battle of the Sexes may be based around an event that occurred in the early 1970’s, but it has a surprising amount of political relevance today. There a few scenes that are fairly potent, exploring not only King’s desire for equality as a woman, but discovering who she is as a LGBTQ athlete. Stone explores these pains with a lot of thoughtfulness, and her relationship with co-star Andrea Riseborough has a genuine spark on screen.
It’s this solid core that makes the movie’s middling results so disappointing. Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy’s script does spend some time exploring these complex themes, but ultimately spreads itself thinly across many different aspect of King and Riggs’ life. The audience has to sit through a lot of standard-issue movie subplots, including a meaningless rival of King who doesn’t have much an impact or Riggs’ insignificant relationship with his son. I get that both humans have a lot of interest to their life, but to focus the narrative more so on the key issues would have been a lot more emotional potent and profound. In general, the film isn’t as damming of inequality as it should be.
For the most part, the direction here is quite flat. I’ve been a big fan of both Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s direction in the past, with indie darlings Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks having a great balance of quirk and humanity. Both directors do a good job of capturing the 1970s era, but similar to the script, they fail to capture the characters or thematic issues with anything new or powerful to say. The tennis sequences in here are also surprisingly bad, with neither director having much a clue in how to tackle the fast and dynamic sport. Their static direction in these sequences makes the film’s climax fairly stale.
Battle of the Sexes has some good performances and relevant thematic concepts, but its gun-shy and safe execution makes it a fairly middling docudrama. This story can make for a great movie, this one just isn’t it.