Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
by Jason Koenigsberg
This legendary historical moment in sports deserved better than Battle of the Sexes. A middling retelling of one of the most monumental moments in American culture that transcended sports. The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was a huge victory for the women’s movement, yet has been reduced to a feud that feels about as trivial and over the top as one between two rivals on WWE Monday Night Raw. OK, maybe that is a bit harsh, but the build up to this tennis match with the huge ego and bravado of Steve Carell’s Bobby Riggs has as much pageantry and spectacle as any pro wrestling main event.
Battle of the Sexes is directed by the husband and wife duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They became famous as music video directors most notably the videos for 90’s alt. rock band The Smashing Pumpkins. Then they hit it big with their Oscar winning theatrical film debut Little Miss Sunshine (2006). Their latest feature is every bit as obvious with its message as their biggest success. No subtly can be found here at all.
The film opens up with a clever retro Fox logo followed by blurry images of Emma Stone as Billie Jean King intercut with the opening titles. This is Ms. Stone’s first big lead role since her Best Actress win for La La Land (2016). She is decent, but never convinced me that she was Billie Jean King. She still looked like herself and was much too pretty to portray the real life tennis star. This ties into the script being patronizing to the audience hitting us over the head with its themes of gender equality. It’s extremely unsubtle the way it has men constantly commenting about women’s appearances. Supermodels probably do not get complimented this much on a daily basis as the women do in Battle of the Sexes. Emma Stone’s acting skills are commendable illustrating Billie Jean King as a feminist pioneer and it is not her fault she does not look like her.
Steve Carell on the other hand is almost too perfect as former tennis star and unabashed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs. He plays him like Pete Rose with his gambling problem if he watched a lot of professional wrestling, and unlike Emma Stone, he looked like the spitting image Riggs. His Bobby Riggs was more of a showman and a buffoon than a serious athlete. Once again reminiscent of professional wrestling more than professional tennis, but that is what this historic match was all about. Carell was channeling his inner Andy Kaufman the way he taunted Billie Jean King with women surrounding him and Emma Stone was Jerry “The King” Lawler by default.
Battle of the Sexes contained a lot of homosexual undertones that were once again as obvious as heterosexual undertones in an ABC family sitcom. It is exemplary and timely that this film is as much about gay rights as it is about women’s liberation. The costumes are also top notch both on the tennis court and off, and the grainy film stock used by the director of cinematography added to give Battle of the Sexes a more realistic feel. Plus, the third act with the actual tennis match lives up to all of the hype and excitement. Getting there however was a drag. The build up to the match itself is very slow and downright boring at times.
What hurt Battle of the Sexes the most is its lackluster screenplay. If they cut some of the fat out in the middle and made the dialogue a little less patronizing, this could have been a riveting factual account of a significant moment in American sports culture as well as an inspirational sports movie. Instead, Battle of the Sexes has good actors giving good performances, dressed well and photographed in vintage cinematography, and it all adds up to just being an OK movie. Not worth the price of admission, but not terrible either. One that will probably be forgotten in a few weeks.
About two thirds of Battle of the Sexes made me think of moments like this video below.