Mark Reviews Movies

Battle of the Sexes


2 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Stowell, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverman, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, Martha MacIsaac, Jessica McNamee 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)

Running Time: 2:01

Release Date: 9/22/17 (limited); 9/29/17 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 21, 2017

Battle of the Sexes is, as it probably should be, the story of Billie Jean King, who spent a career in tennis winning matches on the court and advocating for equality for women off the court. The story of the movie is set in the years 1972, when King was the World no. 1 women's tennis player, and 1973, climaxing with the exhibition match between her and Bobby Riggs, a self-proclaimed "male chauvinist pig" who proclaimed that no woman could defeat him on the tennis court—even though he was 55 at the time.

The match was an act of sport/political theater, arranged by a clown who liked to see himself as the ringleader of the "Bobby Riggs Circus." Here, he "practices" for his big match by wearing diving fins in the rain, parading around in a Little Bo Peep costume surrounded by sheep, and taking 400 pills of "super-nutrition" supplements a day. If they had been suppositories, he might have made a bigger show of it.

The movie's Riggs is a fool, and indeed, he was one—and a proud one at that. That doesn't even begin to approach his view toward women, whom he believed shouldn't be on the tennis court—unless they're there to retrieve stray balls. He loves women, though—"in the bedroom and in the kitchen."

The movie, written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by the team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, might have benefited more from a modern understanding of exactly the kind of fool Riggs was, instead of accepting his foolishness in contemporary terms. In 1973, nobody seems to think twice whenever Riggs makes his pronouncements.

Indeed, the sport of tennis is portrayed as a boys club, where a lounge is only formally accessible to a woman if she's serving drinks to the higher-ups. Television commentators on major networks psychoanalyze every move a woman makes on the tennis court, but when Bobby (Steve Carell) looks as if he's struggling, Howard Cosell immediately points out that the player is, after all, 55 years old. Considering his age, Cosell continues, it's amazing that Bobby is able to contend with any player almost half his age. Excuses used to get men everything. They still can, for that matter, but back then, men didn't have to justify sexist remarks by calling them "locker room talk."

We know Bobby is a dunderhead who coasts through life because he's a hustler—or, as he puts it, a gambler who's actually good at gambling. The movie takes him seriously enough, though, because it's both set in and restrained by the mentality of that era. Billie (Emma Stone) is the answer to his claims, but it's an answer we already know, meaning that we're simply watching a slice of history unfold, with a few more intimate details of Billie's personal struggles.

The movie is Billie's story, from starting a new tennis association for women—when the major association refuses to offer women's tournament prize that's equal to the men's prize—to her conflicting feelings about her sexuality. She's married to Larry (Austin Stowell), a decent man who supports Billie enough to accept that he has to get out of her way, and begins an affair with Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser from Los Angeles who joins the new association's tour to keep the women's hair presentable. Beaufoy's script repeatedly suggests or states that the fight for Billie to be free and open about her sexuality is one for another day.

As undoubtedly true as that sentiment may have been at the time of the movie, it comes across as an easy way out to our ears. The movie is so intent on pointing out the sexism of the day—something so obvious after just a few minutes that it hardly needs this level of dissection—that it more or less brushes off a key part of Billie's life as something to be addressed later. In the movie, that "later" is relegated to a text coda. It's easier that way, apparently.

Everything about the movie takes the easy route. The setup to Billie's story is primarily about her personal struggles, unrelated to the sexism within the sport, but such things are more difficult to portray, even though Stone's performance hints at a better story surrounding the character. With the groundwork laid, the second half of the movie simply goes through the motions of the build-up to the match, with the climax serving as a straightforward, no-frills recreation of said match from a wide shot of the court (This is admirable on a technical level, but it also ends up feeling underwhelming).

Something key is missing, and it's difficult to tell what it is. All of it feels routine, as if this piece of sometimes absurd theater, playing out in real life, is more than symbolic battle (Almost 45 years later, we're still talking about equal pay in sports, after all). It's treated with standard seriousness, and one begins to wonder if Battle of the Sexes might have benefited from embracing the theatrical aspect that's inherent to this story. If anything, such an approach would have solidified the absurdity of Bobby and his ilk's thinking.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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