Battle of Narrative Focus
Biopics, as I’ve previously discussed, are tricky propositions. You need to make something that is both based on fact and entertaining to watch. The former is usually sacrificed in service of the latter, usually the film’s detriment. However, you do have some standouts that take biopics in intriguing directions like unreliable narrators. Unfortunately, most of the time, you have a lackluster interpretation of a curiously interesting event with very little to give the audience in terms of satisfaction. Which is a perfect segue way to today’s review, Battle of the Sexes.
So the title references the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” Tennis Match between feminist athlete Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and chauvinist former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The film plays around with the historical lives of both King and Riggs as reframing the match as a climactic moment in both of their lives as they each dealt with some drama. The focus is primarily on King who spearheads multiple female tennis player to start their own league for higher pay when the typical events heavily underpaid King and her fellow competitors, as well as King coming to terms with her sexuality when she falls in love with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) while married to her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). Riggs, meanwhile, is shown to be an addicted gambler who craves attention and begins taunting King and her fellow female athletes into playing against him so he can bask once more in the limelight after becoming bored with married life.
The whole business with Carell’s portrayal of Riggs is more or less a subplot to the main attraction, which is following Billie Jean King’s fight to seek equal payment for winning tennis matches as men do and proving that the chauvinistic leaders of various tournaments were underpaying women. And keep in mind, none of Carell’s antics are bad, but they do feel so disconnected from all the drama affecting King, and so the business with Riggs primarily serves to pad out the run time with some comedy relief. Now Carell, good as he always is, doesn’t really add much to the proceedings because the script doesn’t give him much to do. Focus is all on Emma Stone, who, despite her La La Land Oscar win, is a bit of a mixed bag for me.
Thankfully, Stone has plenty of room to demonstrate her acting chops here and she takes full advantage of the script given to her. She has to demonstrate a lot of vulnerability, bravado, strength, weakness and shame, and Stone mostly excels with the material. It helps that Billie Jean King was a fascinating historical figure in her impressive athletic feats as well as her commitment to LGBTQ rights and equal pay for women, and the screenwriter (Simon Beaufy, late of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) does his best to cover the broad strokes of King’s tumultuous and event-filled life…it’d just have been nice if the film solely focused on a King biopic rather than crowbarring Steve Carell’s character into the proceedings as well.
Tonally, the Bobby Riggs sequences don’t mesh well with the far more interesting King biopic, partly because there’s not much there to keep your investment and partly because these scenes feel like they are part of a dark comedy in the vein of I, Tonya. Riggs is shown to be a compulsive gambler with a messy marriage and doesn’t sincerely believe his chauvinistic tendencies, rather he considers them all part of his act to stay relevant among the public and his own circle of friends. Now that angle would have been interesting to dive into if it was fleshed out in this movie or developed in an entirely separate film, but as the Carell scenes stand as they are: it feels like they are there to pad out the run time to a solid two hours, rather than a breezy 90 minute deep dive into Billie Jean King.
Hell, if Battle of the Sexes had more time to focus on King, the affair that develops with King’s hairdresser could have been far more entertaining to watch. See, the film sets up a love triangle between King, her husband, and her paramour that sounds like it would make for compelling drama on paper, but it stumbles on its face in execution. First of all, we are given barely any time with the husband before the affair so we have no idea what the couple’s relationship was like; we can’t tell if it was rocked with conflict or if it was a perfectly happy marriage that lacked passion. Secondly, what scenes we do get with the husband are quick and fleeting, especially in critical areas like when he discovers an affair is going on and when King repairs her relationship to him. Even Andrea Riseborough as the paramour doesn’t have a whole lot to do besides tempt Stone’s character and leave her at King’s lowest point.
Additionally, the film barely touches upon the controversy that would have been caused if it was discovered that King was gay. Now in real life, King’s sexuality was outed during the early 80s in the twilight years of her career and suffered a major loss of sponsorships and prestige as a result of which. Unfortunately, this movie decides to only throw in one sentence about the consequences of the discovery of King’s affair and one other sentence concerning how homosexuals are ostracized before going right back to the equal pay drama that takes up the majority of this film. The reason I’m making a big deal about this is because the film’s biggest emotional sequences heavily rely on the King’s affair. While Stone does great in these sequences, you don’t really believe the people around her are acting the way they should.
The film is really a mess of various solid ideas that don’t come together. However, the performances of both Stone and Carell were entertaining enough that the film is mercifully watchable and at the very least informative about both historical figures they portrayed. I mean, it got me to read up on both players’ respective histories, so that counts for something. At the helm, you had the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a married couple behind the indie hits of Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks as well as dozens of music videos. They didn’t really wow me for the most part of this movie, even the tennis matches are filmed incredibly tame compared to other dynamic sports films.
At the end of the day, I’m left with a below average film that’s still decent enough to watch through some solid acting on part of the leads. So I’ll give this movie a solid…
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