Insipid Awards Bait Has Its Day In Tennis Pic "Battle Of The Sexes"

1970s tennis superstar Billie Jean King wasn’t just an icon on the court; her dedication to raising the profile of women’s athletics and redefining gender roles worldwide is still felt today. The now 73-year-old remains, arguably, best known for her emblematic 1973 match versus self-proclaimed male chauvinist and erstwhile tennis champ Bobby Riggs. While not the sport’s competitive peak, the event was and is King’s career in a nutshell – a far-reaching victory for the feminist movement.

It deserves a much better film than “Battle Of The Sexes.”

Helmed by husband and wife directorial team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and scripted by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “Sexes” is painfully paint-by-numbers considering its pedigree, its slack-jawed reverence for King (Emma Stone) keeping it at arms length from its subject throughout. Whether uninterested in getting inside her head or patently unable to, the result is an artless, facile gaze at an American icon, a film whose look and dialogue often come off like an adaptation of the back of a vintage Wheaties box.

Stone, reduced to bespectacled impression, is wholly unremarkable as King, but she isn’t the movie’s biggest liability. That would be its treatment of Riggs (Steve Carell), with Beaufoy plainly unsure of how to frame his antagonist. Is Riggs merely a self-aware clown desperately clinging to relevance? Or is he an honest-to-God pig? Perhaps the point is that Riggs himself doesn’t even know, but that’s of no use to a screenplay that shoehorns Riggs into King’s story long before he actually becomes a part of it.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s found in picking through an assortment of mostly one-dimensional supporting performances (Sarah Silverman makes nary a dent as Tennis World magazine founder Gladys Heldman; Bill Pullman ineffectively hams it up as a cartoonishly sexist tennis commentator). It’s Andrea Riseborough’s delicate portrayal of Marilyn Bennett, King’s hairdresser-turned-lover, that is the indisputable highlight of the picture. The actor walks a fine line between sexual dynamo and, as she would be seen by King’s loved ones, homewrecker, revealing a dimension to Stone’s work that is unseen elsewhere in the film.

Riseborough’s is a sweet, sensitive performance that stands out as much as it does because the rest of the picture is so impersonal and cliché-ridden. Even Carell, one of Hollywood’s most reliable stars, is startlingly out of his element, visibly struggling to get a grip on his character. His scenes with onscreen wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) rank among the comedian’s weakest work, blithely unsure of exactly who it is that he’s playing.

But the ultimate failure of “Battle Of The Sexes” isn’t evident in any one performance or in its languidly photographed title match. It’s that it vastly undersells the charisma and intellect of its protagonist. Any given Billie Jean King interview on YouTube – past or present – is more full of life than the first (hopefully not last) feature film based on her life. “Sexes” isn’t a disaster, but it is insipid awards bait – and less insightful than a speed-read of King’s Wikipedia page.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Elisabeth Shue, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Andrea Riseborough, Eric Christian Olsen, Natalie Morales, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Jessica McNamee, Mickey Sumner
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)