Battle of the Sexes
From D-Day to Watergate, plenty of well-known historical events have been dramatized to great effect onscreen, overcoming the fact that many viewers are aware of how the story ends.
The 1973 televised tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is not one of them, at least in the form of Battle of the Sexes.
Though the story of gender equality and a globally recognized figure exploring her sexuality in a time when such things were frowned upon seems like an excellent fit for today’s evolved social landscape, as told by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the film struggles to justify its existence beyond being a straightforward crowd pleaser.
Reuniting after playing father and daughter in 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love., Emma Stone and Steve Carell look the parts of their iconic athletic leads and succeed at establishing the stakes of their showdown, but are one of numerous moving parts stitched together in a fairly non-engaging manner.
The filmmakers attempt to imbue their central figures’ inevitable convergence with obstacles and personal growth, and while Stone’s King has legitimate chemistry with Los Angeles hair dresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and a heated rivalry with Australian champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), and Carell injects Riggs’ downward spiral with tragicomic charm, the synthesis of these storylines feels haphazard and often empty.
Saving the day is a surplus of humor, doled out especially well by Carell, Sarah Silverman as women’s tennis advocate Gladys Heldman and Alan Cumming as the players’ designer Cuthbert “Ted” Tinling.
The tennis itself is generally exciting, too, but the overall filmmaking displayed in Battle of the Sexes isn’t nearly as accomplished as the directors’ Oscar-winning debut, nor their under-appreciated follow-up Ruby Sparks.
The confines of period detail and hazy lenses mute their style, and the presentation of its feminist themes — namely King’s moving yet forced pronouncements regarding equal rights and calling out shortsighted men — are only so effective.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Fox Searchlight)