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Review: Battle of the Sexes

September 22, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Dramatizing the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Battle of the Sexes sets itself up to be as much a story of chauvinism vs feminism as it is a sports movie.

Billie Jean King is fresh off her win at the US Open in 1972, when she discovers that the United States Lawn Tennis Association is offering female players far less than their male counterparts, and decides to start her own tennis circuit exclusive to women when she fails to win the battle for equal pay.  Despite being married to a man (Austin Stowell), she is also a closeted lesbian, entering into a tentative relationship with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) while on the tour.

Bobby Riggs is a clownish and often obnoxious former Wimbledon champion who believes that female players can never be as strong as the men, and is struggling to deal with his gambling addiction, leading to tensions with his wife (Elisabeth Shue).  Wanting to keep himself in the public spotlight, Bobby Riggs challenges Billie Jean King to a nationally televised match, convinced that he can’t be beaten by a woman, and she takes up the challenge to prove him wrong.

Although Battle of the Sexes has the material and cast to make something memorable, everything about this film feels heavy handed and predictable, more interested in providing a feel good story of feminism triumphing over sexism – with allusions to being a redux of the 2016 election – than it is in delivering a nuanced character study.  The film also makes the mistake of treating Bobby Riggs merely like a comic relief supporting character, which alleviates pretty much all of the stakes as to who is going to win, and feels like a somewhat easy approach considering how competitive and controversial he was in real life.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris know how to deliver the right beats to get the audience going, but Battle of the Sexes lacks something more.  The lead performances are fun, with Emma Stone disappearing behind her dark hair and glasses, and Steve Carell relishing his chance to play a boor, but they also sometimes feel like stunt casting.  The supporting cast is stacked with roles for a litany of familiar faces, including the likes of Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming, but they all rely a little too heavily on the bad ’70s hair and fashion, and often come off as one-note characters.

Linus Sandgren’s cinematography has a pleasingly retro look to it, but is also surprisingly unremarkable, especially following his Oscar-winning work on La La Land.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, a far cry from his Oscar-winning script for Slumdog Millionaire, hits all the typical biopic marks with some clunky and overly obvious dialogue, and the film lacks inherent suspense if you already know the outcome.  This is a crowdpleaser, but not much more.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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