by Joe Hammerschmidt
How does one make a Billie Jean King biopic go from just okay, to nearly flawless? Just add Emma Stone to fit comfortably in those custom-made Adidas. Battle of the Sexes is another film that is simply custom-made for its performers, though especially Stone, whom after her Oscar win for La La Land should be granted any role, and she’d approach it with the same knowledge and commitment every time. Battle is no different, more physical than anything else, with Stone and her eventual opposite-attract sparring partner Steve Carell as aging former pro Bobby Riggs, having had to learn the game from scratch. In the moments that count, those of triumph, utter misery, and embarrassing oneself, a sports film has come along that can’t necessarily avoid formula. That’s balanced with a certain grittiness and a stark sense of irony in how one views gender equality.
Set in the latter part of 1973, at the height of her reign as the top-ranked female tennis player in the US, King (Stone) is always looking for a new challenge. Facing the scrutiny of a lower pay grade for her winnings, opposed to her male counterparts, she along with close friend and magazine genius Gladys (Sarah Silverman), along a handful of fellow female players take a stab at the male-centric key governing body of the sport and form their own. No surprise, the charismatic leader (Bill Pullman) scoffs and rightfully take his own side.
The dominant male had to be someone who jokingly reinforces the female’s place in the home, so much that the female is nearly driven away from his life. Riggs (Carell), once a tennis phenom in his own right, now semi-retired working in a small business structure, moonlights as a tennis hustler and compulsive gambler, to the dismay of wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Realizing his own empire is crumbling, Riggs, ever the showboater poses a challenge to any female player willing, the winner’s purse rising each time. Of course, King is game to prove her stance for not just equal pay, but also athlete’s equality, to where the film finds its inner groove.
Amid a wash of 70s backdrops, made film-realistic through the watchful lens of DoP Linus Sandgren (another La La Land alum), and a soundtrack sorely lacking a particular Elton John that should’ve made the cut somewhere, Sexes portrays the type of sports movie that thrives on the characters more over the history, with the right actors ensuring their legacy. Stone proves once more acting is as physical as it is emotional, much like tennis on an actual field. If enough people could say she was as flawless here, as she was in past roles, then one would be most likely to mirror that claim. She just carries the same wayward grace she offered for audiences last year; capable, confident, unafraid to show her weaknesses and use them to her advantage in the long-run.
The physical, of course, comes from the game, with such a strenuous training regimen exposing their raw nerves in juggling the work with their personal lives, what they risk most in the end outcome. Riggs is blindly attempting to win back Priscilla after too many broken promises, King suddenly questioning her own sexuality when falling for the league’s new hairdresser, the shy Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), and out of her steady husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Stowell carries enough of your standard 70s pretty-boy attitude, but it’s clear he’s had better roles than as the meager wife of a tennis legend. It’s Riseborough, who previously thrilled most subtlely in smaller parts in Birdman and Nocturnal Animals, that stands out the most against the leads. Ever the courageous one who somehow stands in King’s way, then suddenly doesn’t, and then back again only to play the role of a consistent cheering section. Through it all, Miss Riseborough stays constant, and skillfully reserved, not showing too much, or too little of her ability as a performer, the type that assures, and can also provide a few worthy mishaps.
At the center is the creative gender-challenging dynamic between Carell and Stone itself; she the pro-normative hero, he the self-proclaimed and rather villainous “chauvinist pig”, even using the term playfully to build his hustler’s image in the media. For once, Carell is comfortable in his own skin as an actor, thanks in small part to Simon Beaufoy’s glowing script, and continually showing confidence in his chops for drama, while ensuring he never restricts his comedy DNA from ever being stifled. It’s obviously not Michael Scott, nor should it have to be; it’s a tennis legend looking for one more chance at victory, and Carell channels that energy into something purely original.
Husband-and-wife directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) swiftly weigh elaborate athletic activity with a dose of 70s relationship drama, capturing the decade’s turbulent ideas and making them really tender, eliminating the sappiness but leaving a loose tenacity for even meager character strengths to play against stereotypes, and even unpack them. Certain stereotyping is often played for the benefit of keeping the film light on its feet, which is still effective nonetheless; Alan Cumming’s standout ensemble part as a steadfast fashion designer to Miss King serves a winning example.
In cleverly echoing relevant gender issues, where much has changed, but a lot still feels eerily similar, and also keeping more to King’s own personal crises, Battle of the Sexes is a valiant effort in reminding women (and men) the challenge still exists to keep breaking the norm, while closely restoring gender balance for all sports movies this decade. Not only is it one of the year’s best films, with likely awards potential to look ahead to in the coming months, it’s likely no other sports film this year, or the rest of the decade can match it. Proof positive that athletics, and by parallel, actors trying to unpack antiquated stereotypes need not subscribe to a certain ideal; it belongs to all genders, as now as it strived to be then, though certainly more so now. (A-)
Battle of the Sexes opens in wide release this weekend; rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity; 121 minutes.