Battle of the Sexes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★
Release year: 2017
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama, Romance Director: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton

Battle of the Sexes is a sports movie with very little in the way of sports. When it does depict the sporting event which inspired the film’s title, the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), it’s framed like a reenactment of the televised match, with an overhead full-court angles of the action interspersed with reaction shots from the audience. For being the climactic sequence after two plodding character arcs, its strikingly uninteresting. Clunky editing and heavy-handed declarations masquerading as dialogue overwhelm the admirable lead performances from Stone and Carell.¬†When the film’s message is as important as equality and liberation, particularly in our present-day wave of sexual harassment takedowns and political divides, don’t serve the message into the net.

Much of the film centers on King’s sexual explorations as a lesbian paralleled with her fight for equal pay for female tennis athletes. Married to her devoted and kind-hearted husband Larry (Austin Stowell, whose supporting performance is wonderfully restrained and effective here), the film celebrates King’s confident abandonment of her marital commitments for her pursuits of 1) tennis fame, and 2) hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Surrounding King are a cadre of other female tennis players in Larry and Billie’s all-female tennis tournament. These are the heroes, the protagonists, the underdog winners. Every male in the film (apart from Larry) is misogynist trash–these are the bad guys, the villains, the elitists. Battle of the Sexes paints its characters in such broad brush strokes that it undermines its liberative message. There are no real conflicts here, no actul moral quandaries–the men and their motives are Just Plain Bad, leaving the heroic King to rise above them all. Even when she feels guilty for her trysts with Marilyn, the film chooses to leave Larry so undeveloped as to remain an empty cipher for “marriage” as an institutional construct; he’s more than willing to step aside and let the marriage dissipate even while remaining supportive by King’s side. In the world of Battle of the Sexes, all men are either jerks or doormats (unless they’re gay, in which case, they’re parodies). Women characters are just as underdeveloped. Sarah Silverman plays a one-note manager only present in the film for comic relief, while Jessica McNamee as a rival tennis star is bitter and…bitter. None of these characters really matter much, either to King or to us. It’s all quite boring.

Bobby Riggs’ marital difficulties are equally uninteresting. It’s unsurprising when his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) finally leaves him; he’s outrageous and pitiful, trying to market himself as a woman-hating pig in order to make money from staged sporting events. The film tries to play this up for laughs at times, but the comedy here is tonally off, and jokes rarely land correctly. It’s difficult to discern whether the film wants us to empathize with Bobby or vilify him, and Carell often seems lost between dramatic performance and caricature. When Fred Armisen makes a small cameo as Riggs’ vitamin supplier, it didn’t even surprise me–of course this film would have a Fred Armisen character to try to elicit laughs.

From a spiritual or ethical standpoint, Battle of the Sexes offers little in the way of interesting ideas or a rich retelling of sports history. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s previous films, Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, perfectly combined comedic originality with a deep sense of pathos, even as they explored ideas of familial identity (LMS) and the role of the artist (RS) in fresh, cinematic ways. Formally, Battle of the Sexes is tonally confused; its plot suffers from its uneven pacing and editing, while its characters literally shout their moral pronouncements at one another. There’s zero love from me here.

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