Battle of the Sexes is billed as a movie about the famed tennis exhibition match between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). It is being sold as a biting, humorous look at the sexism and the carnival-like atmosphere of the 70’s. It is not.
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have smuggled into theaters what amounts to essentially a Bille Jean King biopic. Not only that, it spends a significant portion of its time dealing with Billie Jean King’s sexuality. In other words, Battle of the Sexes is a big gay movie that just also happens to be about sexism, and a man who was part P.T. Barnum and part accomplished athlete.
Dayton and Faris have taken a huge risk while also playing it safe. They’ve taken a risk by devoting so much time to Billie Jean and her self-discovery but played it safe in the sense that as a whole the movie lacks any real bite. There’s something missing, but I don’t know what it is.
Emma Stone gives a grounded performance in which she all but disappears behind the eyeglasses and bobbish hairstyle. The trademark Stone idiosyncrasies are there, but she manages to make them appear to be Billie Jean’s. It’s a remarkable turn for Stone in its sheer naturalness.
Every once and awhile Dayton and Faris tear themselves away from King to focus on Carell’s lovable, charming rapscallion misogynist Bobby Riggs. The directors hint heavily Bobby’s sexism is more street theater than actual fact. There is a moment where Bobby is begging for his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) to take him back. She refuses and takes him to task for using ‘sexist, misogynistic trash’ to make money when she’s been bankrolling him for years.
Carell is a perfect choice for Bobby Riggs. But he may be too perfect of a choice. He’s too loveable, too charming, too likable. There are no jagged edges to his Riggs. When he addresses the gamblers anonymous meeting and challenges them to a game of poker, it’s more hilarious than unsettling. Bobby has a problem and though it’s illustrated time and time again the reality of its severity is rarely felt. Save for a scene before the big match in which we are given a glimpse of Bobby’s demons and how powerless he is to his own compulsions.
Simon Beaufoy wrote the script, but he seems only to be giving us parts of the story. He handles the love triangle between Billie, her hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), and Billie’s husband Larry (Austin Stonewall) well enough but he doesn’t seem to give us much about either Larry or Marilyn. We’re never given any indication what or anything Billie sees in them. In the case of Marilyn, this might be because in real life mounted a “palimony” lawsuit against King, effectively outing her to the world. This is omitted in the film. Understandable, that element would require a different storytelling lens than the one Dayton and Faris have chosen.
The scenes between Stone and Riseborough feel flat at times. The two actresses have a little chemistry. Both are clearly acting their heart out the script is sometimes it’s just a little too thin. Their conversations seem rote and generic. Their scenes don’t fall flat, but they rarely come alive.
Battle of the Sexes is a surprisingly stylistic film for Dayton and Faris. Working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren the trio capture the look and feel of the seventies. There’s an artificiality to the outfits and hairstyles that in any other decade would seem ludicrous. Sandgren even does close-ups like they did in the seventies. There’s a look and feel of film during that time that’s hard to describe. But once you see it you know.
Once the match between Riggs and Jean starts the movie kicks into high gear. Impressively the directing duo create a real and natural tension as the big day begins to loom. Throughout most of the film, we rarely see much tennis being played outside of the occasional montage. So when the titular match begins and we begin to discover we are going to actually watch it a sort of giddiness erupts.
The last act of Battle of the Sexes more than makes up for any of the flaws that came before it. Everything from Billie Jean’s confrontation with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the eerily impeccably CGI rendered Howard Cosell, how they allow the insanity of the Houston Astrodome to overwhelm us, and the match itself, all come together for one of the best last acts in a film this year. It’s incredible.
After the match, there is a moment between Billie Jean and her tailor Ted (Alan Cumming). It is a moment that could be perceived as too knowing or too on the nose. I didn’t mind it though. No doubt the words Ted says to Billie Jean are words members of the LGTBQIA+ community must have said to each other then. Sadly, they are words they may say to each other even now.
There’s an elation, and emotional well sprung in the home stretch of Battle of the Sexes that seems to be lacking in the rest of the movie. Still, I couldn’t help feeling as if Dayton, Faris, and Beaufoy were holding back. This is a movie that purports to be about Billie Jean King and how one time she decided to play a compulsive gambling heel named Bobby Riggs. But really it’s about how Billie Jean King discovered she liked girls. It may not be great, but I’m really glad they went the way they did.