Oscar season has officially begun, and no stranger to the slew of bait (that is, films designed specifically to win an award) that gets released every fall are biopics and sports movies. Conveniently combining both, Battle of the Sexes, about the legendary tennis match between feminist icon Billie Jean King and self-described sexist Bobby Riggs, is a charming, good-enough dramady that could feasible work it’s way towards a nomination or two.
The trailers for Battle of the Sexes are a little misleading. If you were hoping to see a film about the legendary match or a detailed portrait of both Riggs and King, you might walk out a little disappointed. The film is firmly about Billie Jean King, following the period of her life when she navigates both her own sexuality as she falls into a romantic entanglement with her female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and her place as a woman excelling in a male dominated field. Emma Stone and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy imagine a multifaceted Billie Jean, one who’s kind, funny, and a little reserved but never a pushover. Years after the historic match, the real Billie Jean King is regarded as a pioneer in the advocacy of women’s and gay rights, but Stone and the screenplay do a commendable job of portraying a person, flaws and all, and not an icon or a strong, independent woman stereotype (at least a little surprising for a film written and half directed by dudes).
Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs is used sparingly, which is probably a good thing, as this critic felt no sympathy for this vacuous ass-clown of a character. Riggs is a self-described chauvinist, taunting his female competitors with stock insults like “stay in the kitchen” who intends to profit off women’s inequality by challenging them to matches; if the women can’t beat him, they don’t belong on the court. Carell is good but there isn’t much redeeming about this character. He’s not virulently opposed to gender equality like the head of the FTP, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is, but actually a touch more sinister: he’s a centrist, purely out for his own gain, using misconceptions about gender equality and feminism to drum up controversy and draw viewership to his matches.
It’s maybe forty-five minutes before a game of tennis is played in Battle of the Sexes. The picture isn’t really about tennis, but instead the personal lives of Riggs and King. Bille Jean King is briefly caught in a triangle between her female lover and her husband; while Bobby Riggs, retired at the beginning of the film, is in deep with a gambling addiction. This is all fine material, but the movie drags it’s feet in the second act without anything to show for the time spent; a conclusive ending to King’s bisexual affair is never given and while, yes, real life doesn’t usually offer definitive endings, this is a film and the elements are supposed to go somewhere.
The takeaway of the film isn’t a story about the characters’ intimate lives or the rousing (that’s a joke) sport of tennis, but rather a parable about modern feminism. Battle of the Sexes is just as much about feminism as it is about men’s allergic reaction to feminism, and mens’ general inability to sympathize with women at all. When Billie Jean King inquires why women’s tennis players are awarded eight times less than men’s, she’s coldly laughed off. When she creates her own tennis league and decides to take up Bobby Riggs on his offer to play an end-all, be-all match, she is scorned by men, accused of thinking she’s better than them, that she wants to take tennis away from men, being generally uppity, and a cadre of other things she never actually said or did. King is expected to carry the whole of feminism on her back; while Bobby Riggs plays for sport and attention and to maintain his right to be an utter troll, Billie Jean King plays because, if she doesn’t (or if she loses), it’s proof that all women are inferior.
The film couldn’t have been released at a better time, when criticism of women’s representation in media has entered the public forum, much to the chagrin of male commentators and internet trolls. It’s not hard to find parallels between the feminist conflict of Battle of the Sexes and modern clashes like Gamergate, where female critique of and cries for inclusion in the gaming-sphere was met with what was essentially focused, small-scale, online terrorism from male gamers. The antagonist of the film is not men, but men’s power to frame public conversation. Billie Jean’s fight for equality in tennis was perceived to be a zero-sum game at the expense of male tennis players, an erroneous claim which no men would hear her deny until she’d earned their respect. This, more than the intimate lives of King and Riggs, is the worthwhile discussion at the heart of Battle of the Sexes.
Worthy of discussion as it is, however, the film really only achieves a “yeah, it was pretty good” in quality. Bolstered by a pair of nuanced and entertaining performances from Emma Stone and Steve Carell (and Elizabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, who has a stand out scene), Battle of the Sexes is amusing and highly-serviceable; I can see it being a crowd-pleaser like the director’s previous film Little Miss Sunshine was, but it never does anything to subvert your expectations going in; you paid for a ticket to a movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, for the most part that’s what you get. Those familiar with this story don’t stand to gain much, but an enjoyable night at the movies can be had by all. It’s flummoxing, though, that such a “pretty good” film is garnering awards consideration this far out; hopefully that isn’t the harbinger of a weak awards season.
Verdict: Battle of the Sexes can ignite a discussion about feminism and inclusion that most audiences probably are due for, but it’s length and standard story-telling only warrant a mildly enthusiastic recommendation.