Eric Christian Olsen
2 Hrs., 1 Min.
Battle of the Sexes March 3, 2018
attle of the Sexes (2017), ever tenacious, is a fact-based comedy-drama about sexism that rings true to an era still grappling with the wage gap and an unyielding undercurrent of internalized misogyny
Undoubtedly, the timing of its release was methodical: in the months leading up to its premiere, actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, as well as the film’s star, Emma Stone, were engaging in much-covered discussions about salary disparity and sexist practices rampant in their industry.
The story is, after all, very much in sync with the ongoing fight for gender equality in the workplace. Starring Stone as tennis star Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as the 55-year-old male chauvinist and tennis star Bobby Riggs, it details the famous Battle of the Sexes match of 1973, in which the two competed. Most know the story by now: Riggs crassly (and regularly) declared that he believed women were inferior to men – especially in terms of athleticism – and as a result did the younger King challenge him to a match to hopefully prove him wrong. As time’s told us, she did: King easily beat the out-of-shape, overly confident Riggs.
I guess we’re supposed to take to the product enthusiastically, quick to want to call it rousing or moving or something else that looks good on a movie poster or in a TV spot. The film can be, in certain moments: usually our emotions are heightened when a given scene circles around Stone, and that’s mostly an effect of the latter’s acute, nuanced performance.
But there’s something distinctly forced – and sort of off – about Battle of the Sexes. Although some sequences are well-staged (unsurprising, given the movie’s being directed by the pretty regularly great filmmakers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton), the feature feels manufactured to be acclaimed for its timeliness. I think this principally has to do with the way it so feverishly digs into the politics of the Battle of the Sexes match; a finer movie would have chiefly focused upon King’s struggles as both a female athlete and a closeted lesbian, predominantly painting Riggs as a one-dimensional villain and rendering the match itself secondary. The issues of gender equality would be but another arm of all the things King had to struggle through during the time of her tennis reign, and the picture’s real interest would stem from the public figure’s trying to make sense of it all.
The film’s screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, also makes the misguided decision to try to humanize Riggs. Scenes aplenty show him being a good dad to his young son and a husband trying to be good to his long-suffering wife (Elisabeth Shue); the whole male chauvinism thing, the movie makes clear, is just the guy mostly attempting to get media attention.
For the most part, this rendering is decent. But as the film progresses does the entire Riggs subplot start feeling unnecessary. A more multidimensional King depiction and a cut-out version of Riggs would have worked better. Why attempt to make a misogynist seem sympathetic when you have a terrific feminist character who’s infinitely more interesting at the forefront?
All the female characters in Battle of Sexes are more investing anyway. Sarah Silverman’s a riot as the acerbic World Tennis magazine editor who supported King for much of her career. Andrea Riseborough, who plays King’s hairdresser love interest, is one of the movie’s most complex characters in lieu of her small amount of screen time; we can feel her frustrations as she yearns for a meaningful relationship with the athlete but knows such will probably never come to fruition. Contrastly, the supporting actors, like Bill Pullman (a disgruntled former tennis star), Alan Cumming (a flamboyant fashion designer), and Austin Stowell (King’s kind-hearted husband), are a snooze, doing little else besides serving the story.
If there’s any reason to see Battle of the Sexes, it’s Stone: this is the best performance of her career thus far. But nothing about the movie is quite as revolutionary as she is. Consider this to be one of those well-made HBO TV movies that somehow got lost and managed to attain rescue through a wide release. C+