Battle Of The Sexes ****
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Natalie Morales, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Jessica McNamee, Austin Stowell
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Today, women’s tennis stars are as popular, revered and well-paid as the men’s, but before the 1970s the imbalance between the genders was vast. With the men being several times more than the women, the prevailing attitude was that women’s tennis was just a sideshow alongside the men’s tournaments. But then came Billie Jean King. In a biopic that depicts the build-up to the most watched sports match in US History, the tennis match between King and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs, Emma Stone and Steve Carell star as the two tennis heavyweights whose battle of wits would come to change the course of women’s tennis forever.
King (Stone) has been recently ranked as the number one female player in the world. But when she and her manager (Silverman) realise that the prize money for the upcoming US Open is an eighth of the men’s, they challenge the head of the USNLTA, Jack Kramer (Pullman), and decide to establish their own rival tournament that pays the women considerably better. As they head out on tour across the US with many of the top female players in tow, her husband (Stowell) is strongly supportive, but while on the road King begins an affair with her female hair-dresser (Riseborough). Elsewhere, self-appointed “male chauvinist pig” Bobby Riggs (Carell) does everything he can to maintain the limelight that he earned as a tennis champion. Kicked out by his wife (Shue) for gambling, he tries a last-ditch attempt to prove his prowess by challenging the women’s number one to a well-publicised match with a one hundred thousand dollar prize, which, in the climate of the disparity of gender equality that King is battling against, she reluctantly decides to accept.
In general, I struggle with sports movies. Regardless of how much gravitas is attributed to the sporting achievement depicted in the film, this rarely transcends their sport in real-world value. Battle Of The Sexes, however, is different. There is genuine significance to what the characters are doing, as King battles against the misogynistic world of tennis. The stakes are incredibly high. In taking a stand against the USNTLA, King has annoyed a lot of the biggest names in her sport, so to lose against Riggs would have been a disaster. But refusing to play him would have been even worse. Just as some of the greatest heroes only accept their challenges reluctantly, so too does Billie Jean reluctantly accept this unwanted but necessary challenge.
Fresh off her Oscar-win, Stone is perfectly cast as King, playing on her own persona to great effect. Goofy, awkward but powerful, her focus on winning is only rivalled by her determination to change her sport for the better. Nerdy but charming, this is as Stone at her very best. Meanwhile, Carell is Carell dialled up to 100. His portrayal of Riggs is soaked with his gauche humour, making the garish tennis personality seem both repugnant and adorable in equal measure. It says a lot that he is capable of making an audience relate to a self-styled sexist, but this is a fully-realised character whose brash behaviour is just a symptom of his own low self-esteem.
Unfortunately, these performances are let down by some of the sloppily drawn supporting characters. While Silverman holds her own against two powerhouse roles, Alan Cumming’s performance as the wildly camp designer of the new women’s tennis outfits is like a parody of a parody of Sacha Baron Coen’s Brüno. And though King’s sexuality has more of a role to play than you might initially expect, Riseborough is suitably wet and lacklustre as her lover, turning what should have been the emotional heart of the movie into just a distracting sideshow that just serves to extend the movie’s runtime. While clearly important in trying to understand her character, King's struggle with her sexuality serves as only subsidiary to what is the main plot, while her husband (Stowell) actually makes for a much more empathetic character.
Essentially, this serves as a fitting tribute to one of the biggest female sports stars of the twentieth century. Though not perfect, it ably transcends the sports movie genre to find real value as a movie about gender equality. It’s definitely entertaining and, at times, even funny, so if you like its stars, head straight to the cinema… but if you don’t, you’ll find both Carell and Stone supremely irritatingly themselves in their most purest forms.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.