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Movie Review | Battle of the Sexes

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) agree to a match in Battle of the Sexes

Movie Summary: The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs. (IMDb)

This is a very strange film to watch, with some weird pacing and story issues that stop it from becoming anything more than a decent sports-based docu-drama. Certain things feel like they should have been given more attention, and others less.

Battle of the Sexes starts very slowly and could probably cause a lot of people to lose interest before it really picks up steam for the genuinely well-done finale. I understand that a lot of the emotion and character set-up is being done at the beginning, but it’s just not done very well.

Based on actual history, it can be forgiven for having to fit certain events in, but there surely was a better way of getting the information across? The first forty minutes or so are actually a bit of a chore to sit through, even though there’s no real issue with any of the acting or the story being told.

The best part of the first section of the film is the developing relationship between Billie Jean King and Marilyn, her hairdresser. Their scenes are well-done, but even here the attraction between the pair jumps out of nowhere and we haven’t really seen what King’s personal life was really like to judge how unusual or out-of-character this is for her.

That actually leads me onto what is probably the main issue with the film in general: it can’t seem to decide whether King’s personal life or her public life should be the central focus, and ends up splitting attention between the two until the actual ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match is set up.

Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and Billie Jean (Emma Stone) become more than friends in Battle of the Sexes

Which leads on to another criticism, although the film can’t really be helped here: Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs is great fun to watch, but is so cartoonish it feels like he’s been transplanted out of a generic comedy film and dropped into something requiring greater weight to the performance.

Like I said, it can’t really be helped as that’s what Riggs was actually like, but a better film could have depicted him more appropriately matching the tone of the rest of the film. It can be jarring to switch between scenes with King gaining awareness of her homosexuality or advancement of women tennis player’s rights before jumping to a laugh-filled comedy skit with the larger-than-life Riggs.

Throughout Battle of the Sexes, I kept thinking back to Ron Howard’s excellent Rush with Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl. I’m not comparing the stakes involved, but the personalities of the characters and the real people they depicted. Hunt and Lauda were total opposites with completely contrasting lifestyles and yet everything shown fitted perfectly with that film’s tone – why couldn’t the same have been achieved here?

Now, that’s a lot of criticism for what I’ve already said is a decent film, so I’m going to leave the negativity behind and focus on what it does right. Which is pretty much the entire second half of the film, or at least from the point King accepts Riggs challenge for her to play him.

That’s when King’s story – both personal and private – come together perfectly, and everything building up to her match with Riggs is just so much better than what came before that it really is like watching an entirely different movie.

Emma Stone is great as Billie Jean King throughout, but she really excels once the two parts of her life clash, including the confused response to her own sexuality. She’s always been entertaining to watch, but truly stands out once things start unwinding and the pressure begins to build on King.

The supporting cast end up not exactly caricatures, but are only explored at surface level. Appropriate for a film that is supposed to be about King vs Riggs, but then why spend so much time with them early on? Couldn’t King’s efforts in founding the WTA and championing their rights for better treatment have been shown while providing a greater focus on King?

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has concerns in Battle of the Sexes

I do feel that I am perhaps being a little too harsh as the final preparations for the Battle of the Sexes and the match itself are both great to watch. Having no idea what actually happened, I was completely caught up in the events on-screen and the movie just shines when the focus is on Stone and Carrell.

Although, the best part of the finale? The multiple groups of women at my showing who cheered and applauded for Billie Jean King at the end made me smile like crazy. There are any number of films like this for guys, and just a little reminder that what I might take for granted isn’t the case for everyone.

I guess that’s what also makes me a little disappointed at how superficial the first act felt – this could have been a genuinely classic sports movie for any gender with a little more care, and the final showdown between King and Riggs showed just how good a film it could have been and ultimately failed to be.

Battle of the Sexes is a decent film with a fantastic climax, but is let down by a slow start, muddled focus, and some jolting shifts in tone between consecutive scenes. Emma Stone is fantastic as Billie Jean King, and Carrell equally so as Bobby Riggs – you just can’t escape the feeling that the film could have been so much better if it had trimmed away a little around the edges to focus more on the two of them and the historic event they are replicating.




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