Can an inspirational movie also be a drag?
That’s the distinct feeling one can’t shake walking out of “Battle of the Sexes ,” a fictionalized rendering of the 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs and the circumstances surrounding it.
At stake is the opportunity for women in tennis to even get equal pay consideration, the reputation of a player who could have just stayed in her lane and the perceptions of society at large and, perhaps most importantly, the men in power.
“I’m going to be the best,” says Emma Stone playing Billie Jean. “That way I can really change things.”
Fast forward 44 years: We’re still here, aren’t we?
“Battle of the Sexes,” directed by the “Little Miss Sunshine” team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), is on the whole a fairly standard, if unexceptional film that has two major things going for it: Emma Stone and timeliness.
The story begins by establishing Billie Jean as the best female player in the world — celebrated and adored everywhere she goes — but still not worthy of even half of the prize money top male tennis players were getting in 1972.
A well-cast Stone, fresh off her Oscar win for playing an aspiring actress in “La La Land,” transforms into the quiet, driven and sharp tennis pro with the help of a dye job and wire rim glasses.
After trying logic on Association of Tennis Professionals head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, who smiles sweetly as he spouts sexist fictions), she and eight other female players boycott the tournament and form their own with the help of Gladys Heldman (a chain-smokin’, fast-talkin’, no-nonsense doer played by a fabulously styled Sarah Silverman) and a Virginia Slims sponsorship.
It’s in this climate that Bobby Riggs (played with great panache by Steve Carell), a bored, washed up pro with a wealthy wife (Elizabeth Shue) and a gambling problem proposes a male vs. female tennis match with him playing the self-titled “male chauvinist pig” and the woman as the “hairy-legged feminist.” Billie Jean says no at first, but after Bobby crushes Aussie tennis champ Margaret Court, she decides she has to play in order to redeem her sport.
Behind all of this, the movie attempts to take on the personal lives of the key players — Bobby’s gambling, failing marriage and strained relationship with his grown son, and Billie Jean’s struggle with her own marriage to a man (Austin Stowell) and a fledgling affair with a woman, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
As well-intentioned as it is, this background is all very thinly drawn and suspiciously Hollywood-ized. “Battle of the Sexes” revels in the “can you believe men said/did/thought this” factor at the expense of much of the storytelling and character development. It’s not that that’s not effective — seeing a male television announcer co-host the match with Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) with his hand placed firmly on her shoulder made me shudder — there’s just a nagging sense that it could have been better. In the end there’s a lot to balk at and quote, but not a lot of illumination.
Bobby is also painted out to be a fool and a jokester, whose sexism is a desperate gimmick and not necessarily evil — or maybe the movie is shrewd enough to distinguish between a guy doing a bit and the real insidiousness of the ones perpetuating the divide behind the scenes.
The final showdown is thrilling, but to what end? From there on out women were thought of and compensated equally?
It’s hard not to think of “A League of Their Own” (a far superior film), and these seminal moments in female sports that are somehow both revolutionary and meaningless. But there is a worthy lesson in “Battle of the Sexes” and some hope therein for these still unequal times. Nine women at the top of their game risked everything to fight for equality. There is power in numbers and unity, you just have to be willing to lose it all and ruffle some feathers along the way.
“Battle of the Sexes,” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for some sexual content and partial nudity.” Running time: 121 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.