By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
I would say Cam Newton’s comment last week about the utter hilariousness of women talking about sports with authority was appropriately timed for the release of Battle of the Sexes if it were some kind of rarity. Unfortunately, it’s not.
It doesn’t typically take such a conveniently buffoonish form, either.
Battle of the Sexes tells the story of in her prime tennis superstar Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 50-something year old former tennis luminary turned bored businessman and gambler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), as the latter decides that a match in which he plays the top female talent to prove once and for all the superiority of male athleticism may be something that would play on TV. Boy howdy, does it ever.
Battle of the Sexes is often very well framed and shot by La La Land’s Linus Sandgren, and it flies through its story with great pacing and editing thanks to the confident helming of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. It’s a consummately polished film that has great fun in recreating the colors and fashions of the 1970s as well as the hustle and athleticism of top flight tennis.
Just a touch garish, perhaps.
The real attraction of the film, though, is its true and truly ridiculous story that can’t help but reflect on the odiousness of Boys Clubs everywhere, as recent news events demonstrate are far from a thing of the past (nevermind when you’re actually reading this, I’m sure there’ll be some news that applies). And while that is handled with the requisite seriousness, and even a little bit of extra sly commentary (the reporting scenes with Natalie Morales inserted into historical footage with Howard Cosell, hand clasping the back of her neck like some low-rent vampire, are particularly telling), it’s also often very funny, taking perhaps the easy shots at sexist boorishness, but sinking them all.
It’s not Carell’s Bobby Riggs who is on the receiving end of this, surprisingly, though, as he’s instead portrayed as a man willing to play the clown for a chance back in the public eye with an interesting relationship with his rich wife who’s bankrolled perhaps one too many of his schemes. Between this and Emma Stone’s often conflicted sports super-star who’s dealing with her own double life even as she’s trying to change the world for women in all walks of life, this film’s greatest achievement is its almost across the board array of interesting and complex characters.
Well, except for King’s husband, Larry. He’s a goddamned saint. If you flipped the sexes in the relationship and made the infidelity cisgender, he would be a suffering but remarkably understanding and loving housewife character last seen on screen sometime in the 60s. I’m glad the real Larry and Billie Jean remain friends, but I suspect things didn’t play out quite like this in real life.
I’m disappointed you’re cheating with my wife, but I feel like this double standard is on the right side of history.
In general, Billie Jean’s romance with hairdresser and free spirit Marilyn (Andrew Riseborough) is not handled particularly great from a style (gauzy long-take close-ups) or story integration standpoint. Billie Jean’s need to hide her homosexuality in an era even worse in its attitude than towards women is a fascinating and important part of her life, but telling the story of her sexual awakening in parallel with her path towards her greatest triumph feels like a distraction both for the character (Marilyn’s free spirit mostly manifests as selfishness) and for film as a whole. The somewhat ham-handed and obvious finale demonstrates both how laudably earnest the filmmakers are to incorporate the struggle for LGBTQ rights and how unsure they are as to how to do so in the context of their main story.
Battle of the Sexes ably mixes comedy and drama in the too weird to be fiction tale of a male vs female showdown that played out on the world’s biggest stage.
Battle of the Sexes (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever somebody says something sexist or homophobic
Take a Drink: whenever Bobby Riggs does anything patently ridiculous (could be a double with the above)
Take a Drink: for each tennis game
Take a Drink: whenever Larry does anything near-saintly or deeply sad
Take a Drink: whenever Billie makes eyes at Marilyn
Do a Shot: for Jack Kramer getting his comeuppance