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Movie Review: #BattleOfTheSexes

Battle of the Sexes is solid, well-acted, but misses the bigger - and perhaps Oscar-winning - point.

Review by Matt Cummings

When tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs took to the floor of the Houston Astrodome in 1973, it did far more than bring home the ratings. The moment apparently electrified the country, spawning deep discussions about women's roles in the household and at the workplace. It lead to an eventual melting of barriers between the sexes in a way that no single event had done before. And while Battle of the Sexes relishes in this moment, it centers too much of its story around the match itself, keeping the better story - that one player struggling with much more than beating the other - on the sidelines.

Professional tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is at the top of her sport, a dominant presence on the court who detests male players earning more money at tournaments and receiving more accolades. Her boss Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) doesn't see it that way, forcing King to form her own tennis association and tour with the unflappable manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). While treating her team to haircuts, King meets the hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), who instantly idolizes the champ. But the feeling is actually mutual, as King struggles with her emerging sexuality and the realization that she can no longer stay in a heterosexual relationship. At the same time, King is tormented by the former male champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who steadfastly believes he can beat any woman on tour, even though he's twice their age. Forced into a tennis match that will define the women's movement for the next 40 years, King must balance the crass Riggs with the realization that society might not accept her newly-discovered homosexuality.

Battle of the Sexes is a pull-at-your-heartstrings affair, designed for the maximum amount of emotional responses like, "I can't believe men would do that!" It marvelously demonstrates the hypocrisy that existed for so long in our country before the tide began to slowly turn in the 80's. To see how far we've come in just the last decade is heartening, and Battle of the Sexes revels in being one of the first moments in modern history when women asserted themselves and won. But the film also reveals creative decisions that keep it from becoming an instant classic.

Battle of the Sexes treats the tennis match as the main attraction, rather than the personal story of Jean-King's struggle to identify her sexuality. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris treat this seminal moment - when she pulls Marilyn close to her - as something which is meant to be, as if Jean-King had been boiling over with intent and opportunity. There's well-executed uncomfortable moments as Larry meets Marilyn and others in which Billy tries to stay focused in the face of Riggs' withering marketing campaign. But for the most part, the real human story in Battle of the Sexes is reduced and tossed aside. It's a critical mistake by Farris and Dayton, one that could cost them an Oscar for Best Picture. But there's a whole lot to like otherwise that saves the film from becoming Oscar Click-Bait

Stone is fantastic as Billy Jean-King, as is Carell as Riggs. Both succeed as close to 100% as possible, with the two as polar opposites as possible. We've come to expect such greatness from Carell, as he's in his wheelhouse of insanity here, pulling out all the stops with Riggs. But it's Stone who shines as both victor and victim, forced into a match she knows she must win but determined to prove her sex can compete at the highest levels. Once that victory is achieved, a brilliant moment arrives near film's end that I won't spoil; but it's perhaps the best and most revealing scene of Battle of the Sexes, which is what we should have gotten throughout the film. Stone excels even beyond her role in the overrated Birdman; here, she's both fragile and tough-minded, torn between her duty to fulfill her wedding vows and the growing realization that she can't. That would have made for a far better story, but Battle of the Sexes offers so many strengths that it simply overwhelms us with its serve.

Riseborough and Silverman are very solid, rising to the challenge of Writer Simon Beaufoy's script. Silverman's steady smoking and crass attitude towards established norms probably reflects her own beliefs, which lends an East Coast genuineness to to Heldman. And then there's Cumming as the fashion designer Cuthbert 'Ted' Tinling: he electrifies every scene he's in, gripping Jean-King at the end of the film while assuring her that homosexuality will someday be recognized. He's fabulous and the right kind of levity for a film that has a lot to prove. But in the larger sense, Battle of the Sexes misses the boat there as well: true, legislation recognizing gay rights was a long ways away, but in the meantime the film trivializes King's moment of awakening, refusing to acknowledge the scandal she endured when her sexuality was revealed. It also fails to express her commitment to the game of tennis, which is treated here as a sideshow, an entertaining but otherwise empty endeavor for others to pursue. Battle of the Sexes serves too many masters, choosing the weakest one and hoping no one sees behind the speed of the serve.

Battle of the Sexes wins as a competent and well-crafted period piece, but it does lack heart in terms of telling the bigger story of homosexuality in a time when such things were not tolerated. That struggle which King underwent pales in comparison here to the spectacle that overtook America in 1973, and such a creative decision lessens the film's overall effect. It could have been so much more, in the way The Danish Girl forced transgenderism into the spotlight. This comes off as a weaker second serve than a powerful message of tolerance at a time when our nation sorely needs one.

Battle of the Sexes is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity and has a runtime of 121 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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