Portraying the events leading up to the epic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Battle of the Sexes manages to capture the trepidation surely felt whilst watching the original match, albeit by following a standard biopic formula.
The film opens by showing the inequalities faced by women tennis players; namely that they are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts are paid. After being expelled from the tennis tour, the women’s team struggle to find sponsorships before finally landing one thanks to Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Additionally, King’s personal life — also dramatized — has taken a sudden turn when she begins to have an affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite being married.
Parallel to this is Riggs’ personal life, one filled with gambling addiction and a tumultuous marriage. The gambling addiction leads to the idea of challenging the best female tennis player. Although King initially declines, after Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), she accepts hoping to show that women can play tennis and should be treated as equals.
In the time leading up to the infamous tennis battle, King trains vigorously whereas Riggs decides to rely on vitamins and play up to the media. King wins, Riggs loses. Game. Set. Match.
Battle of the Sexes marks the second time Stone and Carell work together (previously working on Crazy, Stupid, Love) and the on-screen chemistry is undeniable. Riggs’ loud and boisterous showmanship is counteracted by Kings steel-willed dedication to her profession which is brilliantly depicted by Stone and Carell. Both are phenomenal actors who have managed to slip into their roles effortlessly. Carell is known for playing comical characters such as Michael Scott; traits of whom can be seen in caricatured Riggs.
Similarly, the chemistry between Stone and Riseborough is also refreshing, both portraying the budding relationship with confusion and doubt. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) manages to capture the moving love story with some heartfelt — although at times a tad too unrealistic — dialogue.
Props also have to be given to the makeup and wardrobe department for making Stone and Carell look so alike to their characters. The series of archive photographs shown at the end of the movie show just how eerily similar the actors look to King and Riggs.
Yet, Battle of the Sexes is not without its downfalls. The two-hour biopic is slow to start yet there is no real character development and at times fails to really explore the characters further than what is already shown on the surface. Then all at once, it is fast-paced and at times feels hurried.
The tennis game itself – which is the whole premise of the movie – also feels rushed. Likewise, not much is shown of the characters after the game. There is a brief scene showing a crestfallen Riggs who manages to reunite with his wife. Similarly, there is a scene showing Stone crying which I suppose it meant to show us how much the victory means to her. Nonetheless, an excellent performance by Stone.
Although Riggs’ personal story is a subplot, oftentimes the scenes are so far and few in between, you forget he exists — or at least for the first half of the movie. Oftentimes, he is introduced in a scene rather abruptly and leaves just as quick. Stone and Carell also do not have much shared screen time which is a shame considering just how well they interact with each other when they are on-screen together.
The movie dramatizes an extraordinary event that has had a massive positive effect on women’s tennis yet the movie itself is pretty basic and fails to really wow the audience; an entertaining yet unsurprising movie. It does do well in highlighting the social themes still prevalent today. It is inspiring, however, to see what women can achieve especially in the face of what is no doubt one of the biggest sexual misconduct scandals in Hollywood.