Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough
Directed by: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”)
With a story as relevant today as it was in 1973, it’s easy to see how a dramatic portrayal the Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs could strike a chord and bring to the forefront the relevancy of the lack of equality between men and women in areas from respect, to wages, and how those battles are still being fought today. It’s a shame that the film has no interest in doing that.
In protest of the pay gap between men and women for tennis tournaments, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) breaks from the professional tennis association and forms her own tennis circuit that tours the country. Meanwhile, tennis hustler and former champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is struggling to pay off debts and deal with a gambling addiction. In an effort to drum up money and publicity, Riggs devises a plan: to take on King in a tennis match to determine the superior gender.
Though Stone and Carell are certainly good in the film, both suffer from a lack of well written characters. Carell’s Riggs is particularly one-dimensional and never fully feels like a fleshed out character. Instead, he seems like a desperate man who is either drunk or perpetually out of it, trying to drum up controversy for a big pay day. King, on the other hand, is subdued and struggling internally with her sexuality. It’s certainly an interesting take, and a complex story, yet it somehow feels out of place given the setting and early design of the film.
Rather than focusing on the pivotal Battle of the Sexes tennis match and the events that led up to it, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy chose to frame the movie through following a love-triangle of sorts, with King struggling to maintain her marriage with a man, while becoming involved with a woman. So much screen time is devoted to this plot line, that it’s almost easy to forget what movie you are watching. Stone and Andrea Riseborough are good here, but the film never really commits to this relationship hard enough to feel like a movie about King’s sexual awakening.
The biggest problem, however, is the way in which it treats the driving force behind the match itself, which is the attitude of Riggs and his persistent attitude that men are superior to women. By treating Riggs’ sexism as a publicity stunt to promote a tennis match, “Battle of the Sexes” severely undercuts any and all impact it makes as a statement of inequality. There is no context or worse, consequence, to any of his sexist statements or chauvinist attitudes and, subsequently, it all comes across as one big joke. It’s made even worse by having King partake in the publicity frenzy, having fun with Riggs and focused in her own world which makes her moment of catharsis completely unearned.
But beyond that, “Battles of the Sexes” is just a dull film that is more interested in telling a lustful love story than it is talking about equality, gender gaps or even tennis. The tone never sets in comfortably, leaving the film feeling disjointed and dispassionate. Worst of all, in a time where this story could draw a striking parallel to present day issues, it takes a route that virtually ensures that can’t be done. Ultimately, “Battle of the Sexes” feels like a missed opportunity.