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Given the film's synopsis, I expected Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' sports biopic Battle of the Sexes to be about tennis. Specifically, I anticipated it being about the highly-publicized 1973 exhibition match between female tennis sensation Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and former tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).
It's not. I mean, Battle of the Sexes does gradually build to the staging of this groundbreaking competition, an event that still to this day holds the distinction of being the largest audience to watch a tennis match in the United States (an estimated 90 million viewed the match worldwide, with 30,472 in the Houston Astrodome to witness it live). But tennis is a virtual afterthought in this movie -- there's a shocking lack of actual tennis being played on screen -- while Dayton and Faris focus, instead, on the melodramatic personal developments in the lives of the two lead characters at their disposal. Battle of the Sexes wants us to understand King and Riggs off the court, as people. The match they finally play against each other is essentially inconsequential to the point of this story.
And in the larger context, Battles of the Sexes is the story of Billie Jean King, who was facing numerous "conflicts" off the court that are, tangentially, tied to her status as the world's top female tennis player at the time. The movie begins with the 29-year-old King (Stone) wining three Grand Slam singles titles, proving her dominance over her chosen sport. However, King and her fellow female pro players remain at odds with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) and the chauvinistic execs in the world tennis association, who favor male players and refuse to offer women equal prize money. Backed by some of the country's top female players, Billie Jean branches out and forms her own competition circuit, making both hay and headlines as they take their show on the road.
It's on the road that King meets, and gradually falls for, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a California hairstylist who drops everything and begins following Billie Jean as she travels from tournament to tournament. The problem? Billie Jean King was married at the time to Larry King (Austin Stowell), so in addition to fighting for equality on the pro circuit and wrestling with her romantic entanglements in the roadside motels of the new ladies' tennis circuit, King was also watching her game slip because her focus on actual tennis was wavering.
There's more than enough rich material in this fertile chapter of Billie Jean King's personal and professional biography to sustain a feature film (read up on the repercussions of King's outing as a lesbian after you leave Battle), but this also means that Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) gets short-changed by Battle of the Sexes... despite the fact that his side of the story is equally compelling. A gambling addict, Riggs appeared to miss the limelight that used to come with his tennis success. When a cronie plants the spark of a marketing idea in Bobby's head that he'd make a fortune by returning to the courts to play the world's top female tennis athlete, Riggs can't let it go. He embraces the sideshow that becomes the pursuit to stage the Battle of the Sexes. But he also juggles a deteriorating marriage to Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue), for reasons that are hardly touched on in this film.
Battle of the Sexes might have been better if it focused intently on one or two of these important issues. By tackling all of them, it shoulders too large of a load, and appears to give the Cliff's Notes version of some significant chapters in Billie Jean King's history. Stone and Carell are good in their roles, though they don't share the screen until the picture's end, so it's as if they're operating in two disconnected stories that marry almost accidentally. And the film takes a safe, soft approach to complicated topics of sexism in the pro-sports arena, the sacrifices one takes to be the best in any chosen profession, and the repercussions of trying to live life in the afterglow of global success.
While not quite toothless, Battle of the Sexes is, at best, a light volley of banter and debate over important topics, rather than a hard-hitting expose with contemporary ties to ongoing gender discussions (which it easily could have been). It does an admirable job of explaining how and why then "battle" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was bigger than the actual match. But in the end, it'll be remembered as being a movie about several important topics, rather than being an important movie in and of itself.