It’s a perfectly fine outing on almost every front. While it does stop short of being a must-see, you’re not wasting a ticket. Check it out if you’re a fan of tennis or same-sex relationships mirrored in sports narratives.
The Good: It successfully explores the nuances of its well known and often one-noted main characters.
Billy Jean King was the woman, fighting for women’s liberation and feminism and burning bras. Bobby Riggs was the man, an ardent and outspoken chauvinist, fighting to maintain men’s superiority in a sport that was becoming increasingly more open to women. Two sides, a dichotomy, mutually exclusive.
That’s the premise that Battle of the Sexes wants to refute. And it does so through exploring the nuanced personal lives of King and Riggs. King was exploring her sexuality while fighting for women’s place in tennis. Riggs was a gambling addict, in seek of regaining former glory in the hopes of solving his marital strain.
The execution of this intent was mixed (more on that in the next section). Regardless, it accomplished most of its goals, with the help of good, though not groundbreaking, performances from both Stone and Carrell.
Not much else to say; in almost every area of consideration, the film never dips into being “bad.” It is consistently fine.
The Bad: They tried to do way too much with very little time.
I have little doubt that this could have been a successful miniseries on any network, streaming service, or premium cable. But to tell the story they wanted to tell in 2 hours is near impossible to get exactly right.
More than anything, there’s just not enough time. There is a lot of focus placed on making it a classic sports film that leads to an eventual winning climax, while also telling a deeply intimate tale of a woman in the spotlight exploring her own sexuality. The end result is that both stories feel half-told. One suddenly stops for the other, and you’re left wondering what happened.
Riggs’ story suffers in particular. While they do present him as more than “the chauvinist,” he never escapes being a cartoon villain, whose motives become muddied. It was particularly jarring when his seemingly estranged son was introduced int he middle of the second act. There’s no explanation as to their relationship, so the developments that occur later are confusing and unearned.
The Ugly: Can’t help but be disappointed.
I found myself bothered by this thought after finishing the film. My disappointment was rooted in their attempts to solicit key emotions toward the climax: inspiration and a shared feeling of success with Stone/King.
But the inspiration fell flat. The fault lies less with the story, which is inherently inspirational, and more with the characterizations. There was nothing to overcome. King, “the hero,” beat someone who we knew was an idiot, but by the time of the match was so drugged that his loss seemed inevitable. Her victory seemed certain, even for those (myself included) who did not know about this event prior to going in.
“The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs became the most watched televised sports event of all time. Trapped in the media glare, King and Riggs were on opposites sides of a binary argument, but off-court each was fighting more personal and complex battles. With her husband urging her to fight for equal pay, the private King was also struggling to come to terms with her own sexuality, while Riggs gambled his legacy and reputation in a bid to relive the glories of his past.” – Google