- Product Rating -

Battle of the Sexes

| November 7, 2017

It’s a shame that filmmakers feel the need to soften the most fascinating stories in order to reach the widest audience possible. Battle of the Sexes is a film where despite my caring for its themes and subject matter, I couldn’t care for the film itself. It’s your typical Oscar-bait, largely well acted and with some solid scenes, but it never replicates the agency or daringness of its protagonist, refusing its multiple opportunities for more effective drama or satire regarding institutionalized misogyny. If the filmmakers understand the gravity of the event they were recounting, they didn’t convey that too well, its structure wavering and direction inconsistent. But hey, Emma Stone!

The movie recounts the 1973 match between women’s rights activist Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and self-described and utter chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), both champion tennis players who are stubborn in their own rights. Concurrently, King is realizing her true sexuality as she becomes closer to her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) and becoming distanced from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), and Riggs is fighting to maintain his relevance while his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) copes with his gambling addiction. It’s a glossy, nice, and rather broad retelling of a historical moment when pop culture intersected with activism, and it doesn’t quite stick its landing (pardon me for mixing up sports metaphors).

Mentioning Emma Stone’s talents sounds glib at this point given how much more revered she’s become in the past three years; of course she’s really good. It isn’t her best work because she isn’t showing much more to herself than we’ve seen from her or other performers, but she elevates the script. Not much more needs to be said there aside from, again, just how charming she is, even when the material that she’s given is too heavy-handed. Carell’s role asks that he often reverts to the persona that he carved out for himself a little over a decade ago, but he’s surprisingly lifeless in his depiction, not lending much depth to his part and making the antagonist feel like more of a caricature than the film seemed to have intended.

The main problems with Battle of the Sexes is its script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), which constantly struggles to juggle its central and peripheral storylines. The main story is actually King’s relationship with Marilyn—at least, it is for more than the first half of the movie. It’s the most tender aspect of the film and it’s odd that it’s simultaneously treated as a subplot and a defining part of King’s life within the scope of the film, and it’s completely dropped once the titular match starts to take shape. When the screenplay switches gears to King versus Riggs, it hasn’t done much of any development of the latter, lessening the stakes of the climax.

There are some scenes thrown in that show Riggs with his sons (Cooper J. Friedman and Lewis Pullman) and wife, but the feels tossed in and the relationships that Riggs has with his family aren’t deep at all. There are inklings of his older son’s distain for Bobby’s personality, but it’s just kind of tossed in at the end of act two. There also isn’t any justification as to why his wife would even be with him. Beaufoy may have realized this since he stuck in a scene later on where she says what she likes about Bobby, but none of these pieces have been conveyed through visuals or actions beforehand. It’s nice to see more of King since she’s the more amiable person in the film, but that only shows one side of the coin. The movie is half of a cent instead of an entire penny of anyone’s thoughts, and expositional dialogue regarding the movie’s themes are tossed around like a guy tossing singles at a strip club.

Battle of the Sexes can’t really be called disappointing because I’ve been conditioned at this point to be wary of awards-friendly movies based on fascinating subjects. The movie is rarely boring and Stone and Riseborough’s presence carry multiple scenes. The camerawork isn’t too consistent, but the tennis matches at the end are cleanly shot and edited and actually quite entertaining, but co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) don’t add any bite to what should be a cutting-edge story of a sharp, quick woman.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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