A number of people whose opinion I value didn’t much care for Battle of the Sexes. I decided to give it a go all the same, in case there was something in it they weren’t seeing. I’m sad to say that they were right. This is one of those cookie-cutter productions that is tailored to speak to Big Issues and give its audiences a rousing dose of Feelings, especially now that we are now in an era where chauvinism is being rightly uprooted and raked over the coals. The filmmakers certainly couldn’t foresee that that’s where we’d be today, so it must’ve been quite validating for them to release this film in such a timely way.
If only they had made something great! The material, about a famous exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, is ripe for retelling. It’s a classic underdog narrative where the underdog actually wins. But the film doesn’t seem to trust our ability to pick the right side. It’s got to double-down on the sexism angle with gusto, making Riggs a loudmouthed braggart who extols the tritest sexist ideology for the cameras, while the more insidious bigotry is reserved for people like Jack Kramer, who click their tongues whenever powerful women like King try to get their dues. There’s little nuance in how this dynamic is presented. It feels like a construction made-to-order for a feel-good film like this one.
The script is also littered with cheesy nonsense designed for moral uplift rather than adherence to realism. Several times, King is quietly patted on the back for her lesbian affair with Andrea Riseborough’s character and told that the future will hold good things, etc. The LGBTQ content here is done very well, especially when King and Barnett first meet, but when you later find out that the two had an ugly separation that involved King being publicly outed, these banal platitudes end up feeling disingenuous. More so when the film doesn’t even tell you about their falling out, and you have to read it on Wikipedia after the fact.
What I liked is seeing Emma Stone dig deep and set aside her comedic chops for a weightier role. It’s a poised and introspective showing that allows her to disappear into her character—something that she hasn’t done very often in the past. Carell is better than expected, and not as hammy as I feared he’d be. The script doesn’t do Riggs complete justice compared to King, but Carell does a good job of finding a way to anchor his buffoonery on solid ground. He is a showman by trade, a gambler at heart, and a man who is more insecure than he lets on.
I guess if heavy-handed inspirational sports films are your stock in trade, then Battle of the Sexes will be worthy of your admiration. If not, then you’ll probably have a rough time. And if you just want a primer on the Riggs/King matchup, maybe an ESPN documentary would be more worthwhile (if one even exists).