At the Movies

By Noah Gittell

Earlier this year, tennis legend John McEnroe caused a stir when he said that Serena Williams would be ranked “700 in the world” if she played on the men’s circuit. McEnroe was chastised for his comments and forced to apologize. But in 1974, when 55-year-old retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs began railing against women’s players for having the audacity to believe they should be paid as much as men, nobody made him say he was sorry. The only way to beat him was on the court.

“Battle of the Sexes” is the story of how women’s champion Billie Jean King struck a blow for feminism by beating the loudmouth Riggs in front of 90 million television viewers. The debates dramatized in the film are still relevant today, but the aesthetic and narrative choices made by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) have the opposite impact. The grainy digital look and heavy political symbolism is surely intended to give the film urgency — it almost looks like a documentary at times — but instead it flattens the radical, passionate characters into cardboard cut-outs, turning what should have been a vibrantly political work of art into mere historical curiosity.

Emma Stone plays King, who, as the film begins, has just become the first woman to earn $100,000 in a season. Wanting to do the same for others, she convinces a group of colleagues to protest tennis’s gender pay gap — at the time, a men’s title was worth eight times a woman’s title — by starting their own, all-female tennis league. It’s a modest success, but it catches the eye of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a retired pro who is bored with retirement and spending time with his wife (Elisabeth Shue), and decides to challenge King to an exhibition match to earn extra money and, most importantly, have a little fun.

Riggs’s scheme is simple. To hype the match, he’ll act the part of a chauvinist buffoon, insulting King at every turn, mocking her second-wave feminist allies, and even posing nude in Playgirl. Riggs’s buffoonery is easy to mock, but that’s the idea. He didn’t really care about defeating feminism. “Battle of the Sexes” frames him not as a villain but merely a showman who didn’t understand the difficult position he was putting King in.

Therein lies the problem. Riggs thinks he can beat King, but he’s not really a chauvinist, which makes him an odd villain for this hyper-political tale. King doesn’t hate Riggs, but all of his goading forces her into the match, where the stakes feel high for him but low for her. That’s not a recipe for good drama, and the final match feels surprisingly inert. It’s not just that we know who’s going to win; it’s that the film never quite finds a reason for us to care. Even the performances by Stone and Carell – usually dependable – feel lackluster, with each of them coasting on their charisma, rather than creating fully formed characters.

If the professional drama is lacking, the film’s depiction of King’s personal life is the biggest unforced error. King’s relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) is drawn so superficially that what should have been a cathartic change in her character – married to a man, she has hidden her sexuality for years – hardly has any impact. They flirt at the beauty salon and have a night of passion in a hotel room, but what actually brings these two individuals together? Who are they? The film doesn’t know.

Maybe the problem is that “Battle of the Sexes” is just too nice. It doesn’t want to discover King’s flaws, only depict her as a perfect agent of social change. It insists on a happy ending for all its characters, even its villain. Following the last scene, onscreen text tells us that Riggs reconciled with his wife and lived happily ever after. It’s certainly justifiable to demonstrate how feminism benefits everyone — including men — but it robs the film of real drama, and turns an easy winner into an inexcusable double fault.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

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