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Battle of the Sexes Movie Review

Battle of the Sexes (2017) movie poster Battle of the Sexes

Theatrical Release: September 22, 2017 / Running Time: 121 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris / Writer: Simon Beaufoy

Cast: Emma Stone (Billie Jean King), Steve Carell (Bobby Riggs), Andrea Riseborough (Marilyn Barnett), Natalie Morales (Rosie Casals), Sarah Silverman (Gladys Heldman), Bill Pullman (Jack Kramer), Alan Cumming (Cuthbert "Ted" Tinling), Elisabeth Shue (Priscilla Wheelan), Eric Christian Olsen (Lornie Kuhle), Fred Armisen (Rheo Blair), Martha MacIsaac (Jane "Peaches" Bartkowicz), Lauren Kline (Nancy Richey), Mickey Sumner (Valerie Ziegenfuss), Fidan Manashirova (Judy Tegart Dalton), Jessica McNamee (Margaret Court), Ashley Weinhold (Kristy Pigeon), Austin Stowell (Larry King), Wallace Langham (Henry), Kaitlyn Christian (Kerry Melville Reid), Bridey Elliott (Julie Heldman), Lewis Pullman (Larry Riggs), Jamey Sheridan (Ken Rosewall), Chris Parnell (DJ), John C. McGinley (uncredited)


The directing duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made about as strong a feature filmmaking debut as they could have in 2006 with Little Miss Sunshine, which won widespread acclaim and two Oscars from four nominations.
But the married couple, who had spent the '90s and early 2000s directing music videos for the likes of R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, took a while to make a second film. It was 2012's Ruby Sparks and though well-reviewed, it was not a big draw. Dayton and Faris' third feature as directors reunites them with Steve Carell and gives them some hope of returning to awards consideration.

Battle of the Sexes tells the story of a high-profile tennis match between 29-year-old women's champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 55-year-old former men's champ and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs (Carell). The film opens in 1972. King has established herself as one of the greatest female tennis players in history. She's the first woman tennis player to have amassed over $100,000 in winnings in a year, a feat that even gets her a phone call from a President Richard Nixon.

In "Battle of the Sexes", women's tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) agrees to play chauvinistic former men's champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).

Riggs, meanwhile, has a gambling problem. Well, it's not a problem as he sees it. His wife (Elisabeth Shue) disapproves. But Bobby never seems as full of life as when he's sneaking out to win a Rolls-Royce in a late night tennis match bet.

Riggs hopes to stave off irrelevance and to assert male superiority by challenging the best female tennis player in the world to a match. When King declines him, he settles for Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), the Australian who has just defeated King for the championship. Riggs defeats her in the $35,000 challenge, but that of course is not the main event here. King agrees to take on the flamboyant misogynist in a match that ABC will televise and whose winner will get $100,000.

The title and premise of Battle of the Sexes leave little room for surprises. Like many true sports movies, this one will center on one big match and even if you do not know the outcome, it shouldn't be hard to figure out why this story is worth hearing now.

Complementing the main narrative is the subplot of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) awakening to her lesbian nature with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough).

There's about 90 minutes of setup before we get to the eponymous battle. That allows us to see Riggs' struggles with his wife, who kicks him out as he doesn't exactly get help for his addiction. It also enables us to see King's discovery that she is a lesbian, which she explores, even though she's married to a man, with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). This love triangle is treated like a trailblazing advance in the ongoing LGBT struggle, but it seems overblown and shoehorned to give the film present-day meaning. In reality, King would remain in the closet until 1981 when the real Marilyn filed a palimony lawsuit against her. That's not the story being told in this film, and it doesn't really comfortably fit in, but it gives some depth that would otherwise be lacking.

It's a bit frustrating that Dayton and Faris, seemingly full of offbeat originality in their first two films, render Battle so conventional. It's a crowdpleaser, to be sure, as the older audience gathered at my screening broke into applause at multiple points during the film.
And it is well-performed, with Carell and Stone both sinking their teeth into their different yet equally substantial lead roles. And it's breezy and enjoyable, with supporting players like Sarah Silverman and Fred Armisen nearly drawing chuckles with their okay peripheral comic relief.

The script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) is not as sharp or subtle as it could be. But it's sharp enough to win your support and in fairness, there doesn't seem to be much subtlety in the true story which pitted a buffoon against a champion with agreeable, predictable results. Riggs isn't the villain; that would be the sexist tennis exec played by Bill Pullman who isn't about to agree to equal pay for the genders. But there still aren't many shades of gray to the proceedings as you might want, this being Oscar season and this being the kind of movie that Hollywood might embrace.

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Reviewed October 5, 2017.

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