Game, set, and match: Battle of the Sexes is an amiable crowd-pleaser, and a heartfelt dramatization of the famed 1973 tennis match from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Emma Stone glimmers as the inspirational Billie Jean King in a role that contrasts her previous work, while Steve Carell similarly delights as the playful tennis champion and self-proclaimed “male chauvinistic pig” Bobby Riggs. It would be a bit much to call this Oscar magnet awards-worthy, but it is a timely and moving sports drama all the same.
For those who don’t follow the sport, Billie Jean King is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. King is widely renown for her social activism and advocacy for gender equality, which culminated in the iconic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973. King’s legendary matchup against 55-year-old former champion Bobby Riggs brought international attention, as it spotlighted women’s liberation after Riggs defeated Margaret Court and used publicly denouncing the cause as a source for publicity.
The film starts off in the preceding months, where King’s courage is cemented early on as she confronts Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the creator of the “Open” tournaments, for refusing to pay the women players the same as the men. In retaliation, King rallies the other women players to create their own tournament. Meanwhile, fading tennis star Bobbie Riggs gets kicked out by his wife for gambling, and begins searching for an honest way to earn money. He then hatches a plan: orchestrate a media spectacle by challenging the top female player to a televised match.
The events as depicted in the film portrayal of the Battle of the Sexes are pleasures as they unfold. At its core, the film is a straightforward sports drama, but its formula benefits from the lighthearted tone and sizzling contrast between its talented leads. Riggs isn’t quite the contemptible “male chauvinistic pig” he pretends to be for the cameras, rather a relentlessly amusing mischievous wise guy looking for some easy cash and a fun time. Though gender equality is no trivial issue, the topic is given accurate attention without bogging things down.
The film has been in release for several weeks now, but it will have an enhanced relevance in its future run in light of the recent events involving Harvey Weinstein and his fallout. The movie doesn’t directly concern sexual harassment, but its subject has a direct correlation to the horror stories emerging as of late. The recent revelations make one thing clear: things need to change, and Battle of the Sexes will assist in bringing awareness to this critical issue. With an added timeliness its producers couldn’t predict, the film will surely be a favorite come awards season.
Following up her Oscar-winning role in 2016’s La La Land, Emma Stone aims for the prize once again as feminist icon and World Number One tennis player Billie Jean King. The character may not dazzle in the same fashion as La La Land’s Mia did, but Stone is farther out of her comfort zone here, flourishing in her take on a historic figure whose concentration was honed more on her career and athleticism than frivolous distractions such as glamour and cosmetics. Stone is thoroughly convincing, whether she’s smacking volleys or standing up for women’s rights.
Steve Carell excels in his latest Oscar endeavor as well, though taking the gold might be a bit excessive. Donning the task of comedian once again, Carell’s portrayal of Riggs is appropriate, falling somewhere between the giddy antics of The Office’s Michael Scott and the razor-sharp attitude of The Big Short’s Mark Baum. When he isn’t trolling King in the media, Riggs’ personal struggles with gambling addiction and his family are compellingly explored. The character is another solid performance from Carell, featuring a depth beyond the comic mischief.
It would be generous to endorse this Oscar bait for many awards, but Battle of the Sexes is a gratifying sports film nonetheless. Husband-and-wife directors Dayton and Faris continue their successful run with a pleasing, if predictable biographical drama that both pays tribute to a crucial tennis match and illuminates obstacles women are still facing today. Its sentimental script highlighting progressive values tends to be on-the-nose at times, but strong direction and outstanding performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell alleviate most complaints.