"I'm gonna put the 'show' back in 'chauvinist,'" exclaims the cartoonish clown of a man who challenges the forward-thinking woman in a tense competition to take place during a period when gender politics were complicated, to say the least. Yes, the analogy present should be an obvious one, but everything Battle of the Sexes has to say about its subject rests in the title. Here were Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, locked together in battle on the court, yet the film shortchanges both on paper. He set out to prove male dominance in the sport. She set out to fight for equality in the court of public opinion. The film repeats this mantra on both sides so many times that it ultimately battles its own foe - routine.
Separately, only one-half of this pair is interesting. Billie, played in the film by Emma Stone, was the first woman to be World no. 1 at tennis. The film opens with this accomplishment being met with praise by President Richard Nixon and proceeds by repeatedly proving that the accomplishment meant little to the men either commentating upon (such as Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman, who claims "respect" for women while never showing it) or taking part in the sport. The film provides little insight into such a mindset, perhaps for fear of assuming that insight leads inevitably to justification. Whatever the case, the sexist climate of competitive sports in the 1970s is barely explored beyond eliciting a general sort of outrage.
Of much greater interest to the audience might be the stretches of Billie's story that regard her personal life, which was just complicated as, if not more complicated than, her battles on the field. Living with a husband (played by Austin Stowell) in a marriage that is nothing more than a pantomime, Billie's romantic disposition toward women shows itself to her in the form of Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser able to transform Billie's hair (the picture of hair in the 1970s) into slight but noticeable variations of itself. Stone's performance is exceptional despite the screenplay's limitations, particularly in moments of the woman's repression of her true nature melting at the sight of someone to whom she can reciprocate true affection.
Bobby, played by Steve Carell, is much less defined. When he's on the court, he demonstrates the kind of confidence that - it is entirely possible to hypothesize - is overcompensating for something: He prances around in Little Bo Peep costumes, parades with cheerleaders wearing shirts that announce his dominance, and seems proud of the fact that he's the chauvinist pig to Billie's "hairy-legged feminist." Off the court, his marriage to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) is on the rocks once the woman has had enough of his impulsive attachment to power dynamics.
Carell only plays the broad cartoon of the man, and that problem of broadness extends to Simon Beaufoy's screenplay, which can only pay lip service to the ideas it sets up. The match sequences are impressive, as directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and cinematographer Linus Sandgren stage and compose them as being from the overhead point-of-view of a sports broadcast. They, though, are at the service of a story that rushes through most of its important points. Battle of the Sexes nearly escapes from this self-imposed trap by virtue of one-half of its story, but it fails the other half at an alarming rate.
Emma Stone (Billie Jean King), Steve Carell (Bobby Riggs), Andrea Riseborough (Marilyn Barnett), Austin Stowell (Larry King), Elisabeth Shue (Priscilla Riggs), Bill Pullman (Jack Kramer), Sarah Silverman (Gladys Heldman), Alan Cumming (Cuthbert "Ted" Tinling), Natalie Morales (Rosie Casals), Martha MacIsaac (Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz), Jessica McNamee (Margaret Court).
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy.
Rated PG-13 (sexual content, partial nudity).
Released in select cities on September 22, 2017.