Tennis is the closest a sport gets to slow cinema; static, repetitive, and grueling, it’s home for our most patient, determined, and gnomic athletes. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Battle of the Sexes, though, recreates the moment where a single tennis match was as bombastic and highly viewed as a Super Bowl game: the 1973 exhibition between retired U.S. Open champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who had just become the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. This was a lopsided, heavily commodified entertainment, but Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay deftly lays out the stakes of the event for the culture, the sport, and the two players facing one another across the net.
If anything, the film is too evenhanded in depicting the struggles of its twin protagonists. Riggs is a huckster and sucker whose days of masculine prowess are long behind him. A mediocre dad and a crummy husband, he gambles away the inherited wealth of his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), as he idles through what’s apparently a prolonged midlife crisis. The film’s climactic showdown is his bid for one last taste of the spotlight, and Carell is appropriately timid as a figure with unavoidably Trumpian overtones. Riggs is shown to be averse to interiority, mocking fellow gambling addicts and turning therapy appointments into additional side hustles; the filmmakers diagnose his emasculation by surrounding him with tacky oil paintings of his wife until he comes to life conceiving his exhibition with King, performatively embodying the trite dichotomies of the era as the proud “male chauvinist pig” to King’s “hairy-legged feminist.” With his familiar snicker and ironic intakes of breath, Carell gracefully hints that Riggs is playing for the camera, turning the match into an ever-larger and more preposterous cultural sensation.
These glints of knowing, however, don’t prevent his portion of the film from becoming a dramatic sinkhole. Riggs’s sad-clown backstory takes up half of the film’s exceedingly lengthy wind-up, leaving King and the women of the then-nascent Women’s Tennis Association to carry the burden of guiding the film’s plot, along with its explorations of first- and second-wave femininity, the crude and casual sexism of capitalism in general and athletics in particular, the inherent loneliness of the high-achieving athlete, and the unexpected sexual awakening that challenges King’s ascetic lifestyle. In this sense, Battle of the Sexes is about the overwhelming amount of obstacles that King and the women of professional tennis had to overcome in order to merely pave the way for a semblance of gender parity the sport has only recently bowed to.
The film’s structural imbalance, though, is emblematic of the both-sidedness it’s meant to combat. Where the stretches of the film that focus on Riggs’s schemes and drifting lifestyle are ambling and rudderless, those that are meant to illuminate King are too often terse and perfunctory. The film effortlessly presents a broad spectrum of femininity, from the icy determination (and homophobia) of King’s primary competitor, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), to the shrewd salesmanship of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), one of the players who helped found the professional women’s circuit. Dayton and Faris labor to carve out ample space for King’s path toward self-discovery and her secret relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough); their scenes together are full of extreme close-ups and muffled sound design intended to heighten the sensory revelation of their connection. Stone, stuck with a flat wig and few scenes devoted to her interior struggle, nonetheless nails the tension between the thrill of new love and its inevitable impact on her game, which relies on routine and consistency.
Though King enters her match with Riggs at the Houston Astrodome as a clear favorite, her professional and personal travails nonetheless dovetail in the manner of any great underdog sports story, and Battle of the Sexes treats King’s lesbianism with an awkward mix of acceptance and cheeky boosterism. Her bland and dashing husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), provides a model of reasoned, progressive allyship, while Alan Cumming, as Ted Tinling, the outfitter for the women’s tour, embarrasses himself as a sort of gay whisperer, cheerleading King with lines like “Calm down, Madame Superstar.”
Dayton and Faris move rapidly through their best material in the final act, turning the media circus of the Riggs/King sensation into a set of training and PR montages. This buildup is immensely winning, a collision of insane photo ops and advertising kitsch complete with farm animals and tasteful nude shots. If the film makes King’s victory for gender parity seem a little less inevitable than it probably was, it doesn’t hesitate to point out that she has little choice but to indulge Riggs’s shameless pandering to the camera. Still, Battle of the Sexes feels a bit complacent in celebrating King’s victory as a decisive milestone. It was only recently when female professionals, with the help of the Williams sisters, began earning the same amount of money as men at major events, and our nation’s recent upheaval have made clear that the likes of Bobby Riggs have an outsized influence on the fate of our culture and the world. Stuffed with endlessly repetitive lines about “a woman’s place” in the kitchen or the bedroom, Battle of the Sexes sacrifices some of its innate appeal by making ham out of the supposed relics of a less enlightened era.