Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife duo behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, deliver a neat little sport biopic with a clear political bent with Battle of the Sexes. Based on a true story, the film explores the highly publicized 1973 match between tennis world champions Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the first a vocal campaigner for gender equality and the second a brash, self-described chauvinist. With King and Riggs happily falling into their competing archetypes, Battle of the Sexes does manage to be an enjoyable underdog story, but also a very predictable one that starts to wear out its welcome as it gets more and more caught up in documenting the events that inspired the story.
Where Battle of the Sexes shines brightest is on its two leads, who prove much more interesting characters than the stereotypical gender-defenders we see in the trailers. While both have a lot tied up in the big match, there is no real animosity between the pair and they know they are putting on a show for their own various means. Riggs in particular surprises by not at all turning out to be the big, sexist anti-feminist he presents himself to be, but rather a charismatic hustler who delights in playing the heel and knows how to draw a crowd.
King too is performing, but in a very different way. Taking very seriously both her tennis career as well as her role in trying to secure equal pay for women, Billy Jean begins to complicate her life when she discovers she has feelings for her female hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), with whom she begins an affair. Already trying to defend women as second-class citizens, King knows her newfound sexual orientation is something she must keep secret less it detracts from her political standing, or worse, her tennis career. Also, she’s married, so probably best the husband doesn’t find out as well.
While King’s sexuality is obviously an important component to the character, Battle of the Sexes struggles to make this relationship feel like more than a handful of plot points. There’s a noticeable absence of chemistry between Stone and Riseborough. Their first meeting feels utterly inorganic and forced, proving to be one of the film’s lowest points and framing their future interactions in an inescapable poor light. To a certain point, you can defend the vacant exchanges as King being trepidatious about their relationship, but even when the two are fully indulging in each other’s company it feels disappointingly cold.
Luckily, there is a lot more to the story of King and Riggs than this throwaway love story, so you’re never dragged down by it for too long. Anywhere else you look Stone and Carell’s charm and endearing determination can’t help but bring you back in. There’s a lot of heart to both of their performances, and while I’d hardly call Battle of the Sexes a side-splitting comedy, the two stars sprinkle plenty of humour around the runtime to keep you engaged (though Carell probably gets the most laughs by virtue of Riggs ostentatious personality). I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call their performances transformative, but both actors throw themselves totally into their oh-so-seventies roles, and it’s a testament to their performances that it feels like you are watching a story about two people named Billy and Bobby, not Emma and Steve.
The real problem with the movie though, is after you’re done getting to know these characters in the first half, you’re just kind of stuck plodding along for the rest of it. There’s no doubt this match is important to King and Riggs, but Battle of the Sexes fails to establish any real stakes, and swings back into a more public perspective as we watch it all play out. While this shift probably does have some nostalgic value for those familiar with this story, it robs the movie of that behind-the-scenes glimpse into its key characters, and fails to revive the story with any sort of emotional resonance. The result is a third act that feels like you are reading through a Wikipedia entry rather than watching a climatic sports movie showdown.
Battle of the Sexes is a movie that knows what it wants to accomplish, and doesn’t try too hard to go above and beyond to do so. While at times it can feel like it’s just leading you through the motions (especially during its second half), the leads bring enough charm and their characters enough personality that it still manages to be a reasonably fun experience. Whether or not it’s worth your time though, will come down to just how much Stone and Carell can carry a movie for you.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10