Sports movies are generally more about sports than not – but this is not a sports movie.
Billie Jean King’s face-off with Bobby Riggs is the stuff of tennis legend and fittingly the subject of this biopic, focused in near equal measure on its two central figures. Crazy Stupid Love co-stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell reunite as the impeccably well cast rivals, their practised performances and the well-honed 70s aesthetic throughout above all championing what is otherwise a less considered treatment of the titular match.
Sport films, among them Battle of the Sexes’ own precursors, including Paul Bettany’s much-loved Wimbledon, generally featured their signature game as more than a third act afterthought. Whether focused on strategy or the sport as an analogy of sorts for whatever crisis the competitor has to overcome, play figures heavily as you might typically expect in any adaptation where the exertions on the chosen field are as relevant to devotees as the politics or underlying tensions of any particular episode.
Here, more than fleeting instances of actual tennis aren’t apparent until the very end when the match itself is undertaken. Even then, the camera is allowed to rest on precious few points, the drama appealing in any given tennis match neither evinced nor established for those who may be less than familiar with the beloved pastime, with the precursor match, known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre,” as with so much of the on court action proffered precious little screen time.
Moreover, the strategy so pivotal to the game and famed match as well as the how, why and whichever way one may be liable to triumph over the other is glaringly absent, save some lines of literal commentary overhanging the final chapter. The game-play features second fiddle to what is fairly in this case the just as if not more compelling tension of the moment, here the concern of whether or not the champion King will triumph over the outwardly chauvinistic Riggs as she and others attempt to bring about gender parity in the tennis establishment. As a political and to some extent media drama the film fares somewhat better, though can never commit to a fully realised vision of King’s then prevailing circumstances due to the presence of oft-competing ingredients and the still incidental inclusion of what is nevertheless it’s inescapable focus; tennis.
Relying to a great extent on the characters to drive its appeal and political thrust, aside from the colourfully realised leads only King’s husband (Austin Stowell) gets much more than a one-dimensional treatment, his additions to proceedings aptly teasing out some of the dilemmas at the heart of the film.
In search of a villain throughout, as an audience might expect but not necessarily crave depending on the degree of nuance pursued by filmmakers in any given case, Carell’s Riggs can only take this ideation of the character so far, adding several layers of complexity to the champion in a role which deftly plays to both his comedic and dramatic sensibilities. Passingly adopting Margaret Court as a foil and directly addressing her widely publicized and controversial statements, she is gone just as quickly, her presence but a teaser for the key conflict to come.
Undecided on exactly what it wants to be and never steering any of its varied strands to their full potential, Battle of the Sexes is compelling enough as a very human drama with tinges of the comedies for which Stone and Carell are better known. If you’re looking for a traditional sports flick however, or a more in-depth approach to the game, then this isn’t your racket.
Battle of the Sexes is in cinemas from September 28