One of the main, dispiriting takeaways from this biographical sports dramedy, which is as muddled as its genre classification, is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the present climate where sexism, discrimination and equality are at the very bleeding edge of public consciousness, “Battle Of The Sexes” fails to take any of its match points.
Dramatising the events leading up to the 1973 stunt match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the film breezes through major events such as the establishment of the Virginia Slims Tournament and the simmering feud between King and the Lawn Tennis Association’s Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), in a hurry to get to the juicy details of King’s off the court life and occasionally seeming to forget tennis altogether.
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), “Battle Of The Sexes” is a disjointed effort hampered by a clumsy bluntness in regards to the themes it wants to explore and the direction and cinematography choices they make. The awakening of King’s sexuality is handled sympathetically if tiresomely heavy-handedly but never really adds much to the overall story. The romance never feels authentic thanks in large part to Risborough’s inability to establish any kind of chemistry with Emma Stone’s much more rounded and likeable Billie Jean King. What does comes across, though, is Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Risborough)’s profound selfishness in her seduction and pursuit of King, regardless of the professional or personal risks to the object of her affection, foreshadowing the egregious lawsuit she would eventually file, nearly ruining King in the early eighties.
Carell’s Bobby Riggs, on the other hand, is so uncannily lifelike that even in the seemingly mandatory end of docudrama wrap up, you have to double check whether it’s Carell or the man himself. In many ways, though, Riggs is by far the easiest character to play in the film given his public persona was such a cartoon character anyway.
The rest of the film is filled with lazily one-dimensional stereotypes with all the men – apart from Larry King (Austin Stowell) – portrayed as irredeemable male chauvinist pigs. It’s content to point and snigger at the caricatures rather than bring any real insight to the social, political and economic context against which King was fighting a civil rights battle on and off the court. The tennis sequences feel sluggish and staged, a sharp contrast to the on court tension of “Borg vs McEnroe” and the closest the film actually gets to subtly demonstrating just how repellent the rampant sexism of the seventies was is when the handsy commentator for the King vs Riggs match won’t keep his paws off co-commentator Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales). Further diluting the film’s focus is a grab bag of underdeveloped side plots which never really gel so other notable personalities of the story, such as Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), get short shrift in this superficial and scatter-brained retelling of a fascinating pivotal moment in sporting gender equality.
The strong lead performances from Stone and Carell aren’t enough to save this misjudged and muddled biopic from failing to make a case for itself against the much more contextual, informative and dramatic 2013 documentary which, in a battle for your viewing time, should win in straight sets.