Films that are “Based on a True Story” are made for one of three reasons: 1) they have a clear message that someone feels passionate about; 2) they tell an unbelievable or truly remarkable story; or 3) they uncover and/or showcase incredible tests of strength, honor and heroism. Going into Battle of the Sexes, I knew nothing about the events that transpired between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). To be perfectly honest, like a lot of people, I’m sure, I didn’t even know who these people were. Because of the subject matter, I figured Billie Jean King would be triumphant, but the actual match happened before I was born, and I don’t watch tennis, so there’s really no reason why I would know what transpired between these two stalwarts of the sport. After seeing it, it’s clear that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris had something to say with Sexes, but the execution of those messages — including equality for women in all aspects of life as well as equal rights for the LGBT community — got a little lost in translation.
The story focuses on King, who makes a very strong point about the discrepancy between the purse for male tennis players being a lot higher than for female players, especially when women draw the same exact crowd sizes. There’s no arguing that the road to women being seen as more than simply eye candy and/or housewives was a long, grueling one, and according to this film, King was one of the major players in turning the tide. After the president of the main tennis association at the time (Bill Pullman) refuses to comply with her demands for equal pay, King and a team of her peers ditch the organization in favor of starting the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). In response to King’s assertion that women are just as good as men, arrogant Wimbledon champion Riggs challenges her to a tennis match that would prove once and for all that men are stronger, faster and much more suited to play the sport.
Stone and Carell are both terrific, perfectly capturing the essence of the characters and the dynamic of their rivalry. I do find it funny — and perhaps a bit ironic — though, that in a movie that speaks to equal rights, Riggs gets the short end of the stick when it comes to character development. King is on grand display, sometimes to the detriment of her plights. When she begins to feel something for her attractive hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), Dayton and Faris nearly bang you over the head with five minutes of looks and blatant come-ons that none of it feels authentic — they are forcing you to believe that these characters could fall for one another rather than having it naturally grow into something, which it does anyway, so why spending all this time on this first meeting was so important, I’m not sure.
This excess of attention leaves less time to explore what Riggs was going through at the same time. As Dayton and Faris concentrate on making King a flawed human being, Riggs is turned into nothing more than a caricature. Addiction to gambling and the breakdown of a marriage are strong dramatic elements that are mostly played for laughs or treated as more of an afterthought. Often times, as we have seen with the tragic losses of great comedians, those who display a comic facade in public may have a deeper conflict going on underneath. In one scene, Riggs erupts in a gambler’s anonymous meeting, which plays into Carell’s strength as both a smart comedian and dramatic actor, but Dayton and Faris never dig any deeper into this idea, returning him to a brash, chauvinistic joke over finding out what makes Riggs truly tick.
This discrepancy in development keeps the final match from being the strong, empowering, David vs Goliath moment it was meant to be. The actual match is done well, and the inclusion of actual television footage is a nice touch. But at no time did I ever believe King was battling a giant; she was battling a jester, someone so insignificant in comparison to what King was trying to accomplish. According to the film, Riggs was one of the mightiest players to play the game who doesn’t take the match seriously at all. He believed with all of his might that he could beat King in his sleep and it would be great publicity. However, other than a quick moment where we feel the pressure getting to Riggs and his realization that he should have done more to prepare for the match, seeing him as anything but a clown underwhelms the entire climax.
The resolution of the film is also hurt by not giving Riggs more time to develop. According to the narrative that was presented, there’s no reason for what happens at the end of the film except for the fact that it happened in real life. In that way, it felt tacked on and manufactured without any true resonance, and this is where the film ultimately lost me. No one expects a movie based on true events to be 100% accurate. If it were, it would be a documentary. Narrative films based on true events are always embellished in some way in order to fit a specific dramatic narrative. I can’t say how accurate Battle of the Sexes is or isn’t; but by being more of a showcase of what happened rather than an exploration of why it happened and the true significance of it, the film didn’t leave a lasting impression on me in the way I believe it was intended.
My Grade: B
Next week, new movies include Blade Runner 2049, The Mountain Between Us and My Little Pony: The Movie. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.