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Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes dramatizes the world-famous 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King (respectively played here by Steve Carell and Emma Stone). At the time, Riggs was a U.S. champion player with a Wimbledon triple victory under his belt. Meanwhile, Billie Jean King had earned multiple Grand Slam titles and worked as a founding member of the Women’s Tennis Association. Additionally, Riggs had built up a reputation as a womanizing showboat while King racked up headlines as a feminist demanding equal pay and treatment for female athletes.

The film also takes a bit of time to portray Riggs’ gambling addiction and marital difficulties, but far more attention is given to King and her struggles. In addition to being a feminist struggling for respect in a man’s world and building up a women’s tennis league from nothing, she’s also a closet lesbian in a straight marriage. Naturally, such secrets could potentially destroy her reputation and everything she’s worked so hard to build, to say nothing of her marriage and whatever personal relationships she might have.

In theory, all of this could make for a compelling awards drama with fertile themes of sexual equality and identity. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the filmmakers did. And the whole movie was weaker for it.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly a bad movie. The retro visuals are good, the cast is solid, and it’s not like the film’s feminist LGBT-friendly statements aren’t timely or relevant. But something about it felt strangely off, and I could feel it most keenly with the relationship between King and her lesbian mistress (Marilyn, played by Andrea Riseborough). Emma Stone has always shown the preternatural ability to instantly generate chemistry with any onscreen partner in even the shittiest of movies (*coughAlohacough*), and she was giving a perfectly serviceable performance here opposite a genuinely talented actress, but this romance simply didn’t have the necessary spark.

So, what went wrong here? Well, I think I’ve got a good idea about that.

See, this is a movie from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband/wife directing team behind Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks. What’s more, the cast is comprised of such talents as Steve Carell, Emma Stone, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, and John C. McGinley. What do these talents all have in common? They’re comedians. Every single one of them got to be famous through breezy and comical works. Compare that to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who previously wrote such light-hearted fare as Slumdog MillionaireEverest127 Hours, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. This is clearly a case of the wrong script getting handed to the wrong filmmakers.

To be clear, all of these are wonderfully talented actors and filmmakers with proven dramatic chops, and none of them are anywhere near bad enough to humiliate themselves. They can all do good work in drama, but it’s not where they do their best work. This is not their comfort zone, and the whole movie feels hamstrung as a direct result. Hell, you can even see it in the performances from Andrea Riseborough and Bill Pullman, the way they seem floundering for want of direction.

What’s more, the story itself might have been better served as a comedy. After all, we’re talking about a movie centered around the premise of a tennis match as a decisive battleground for women’s liberation. Couple that with Riggs’ shamelessly outlandish publicity stunts, and this had all the makings of a powerful satire about sports, the media, gender politics, and everything in between. Especially with such filmmakers who were more than talented and clever enough to make it work.

Instead, what we get are statements about feminism and LGBT equality delivered with all the subtlety of your average political campaign ad. To repeat, it’s not like those statements aren’t timely or important. But they’re not exactly bold or innovative, either. Delivering these same points in a more comical manner could have given this film the novelty and creativity needed to make these points stick. Because as it is, the movie’s statements don’t come off as new, clever, intelligent, or compelling in any way. It’s just more of the same, which is nothing particularly memorable or compelling.

What makes this especially bad, we’re talking about a movie based on such a wildly famous true story that we already know exactly how this ends. As such, this movie desperately needed all the dramatic tension it could get. But the filmmakers didn’t seem to know that. Between the aggressively blunt messages and the abject failure at staging the tennis matches with any kind of suspense, we’re left with a movie that plays out exactly the way we all know it will.

It seems fitting that Battle of the Sexes should be released opposite American Made, because I’d put them both in the same class: Movies that aren’t entertaining enough for summer blockbusters, but aren’t intelligent or memorable enough to be awards contenders. It’s not that either movie is bad, but they’re not as good as they could’ve been.

In the case of Battle of the Sexes, this movie had everything in place to be a biting and whip-smart satire, but the film was made into an awards-bait melodrama instead. It’s still a fascinating story and the filmmakers were more than talented enough to make the film watchable, but these same talents were better suited to a film that erred on the side of comedy rather than drama.

The film is absolutely worth a rental, but I fail to see any reason why this demands a big-screen viewing.

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