This risk-averse biopic serves a safe, sanitized story

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Battle of the Sexes
Opens October 6
2.5 out of 5

There’s nothing subtle about Battle of the Sexes, but that should be fine given the source material. The real problem is that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ blunt approach depicts sexism as a problem of the past instead of the pervasive phenomenon it actually is (see: the 2016 U.S. election).

Also not helping: a flat, stale portrayal of lesbians that feels like it’s from a decade ago.

In 1973, as the women’s liberation movement gathered strength, professional tennis was infamous for its pay gap between sexes. Women’s prizes were one-eighth of the men’s — the excuse being that nobody attended championships to watch ladies’ matches. The world’s number one female tennis player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and a handful of other top players established a parallel tournament to prove the powers-to-be wrong.

As the battle of wills between King and the tennis establishment rages, a retired player sees an opportunity to return to the spotlight and make some money. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), former champion and current gambling addict, challenges King to a game to prove “once and for all” that men are superior.

Most of the story is in the public domain and was covered by a 2001 TV movie starring Holly Hunter that carefully sidestepped Billie Jean King’s sexual orientation. By comparison, Battle of the Sexes’ main contribution to the narrative is a thorough dive into the lives of King and Riggs.

The tennis star, then married to Larry King (not that Larry King), was ambivalent about her attraction to women and reluctant to act on it. Riggs was undoubtedly a chauvinist but it was mostly an act, and he treated Billie Jean more honorably than the Association of Tennis Professionals. Both Emma Stone and Steve Carell transcend the caricatures and give King and Riggs some depth, in spite of the script’s shortcomings.

The main problem with Battle of the Sexes is the filmmakers’ aversion to getting their hands dirty. Dayton and Faris (who also directed Little Miss Sunshine) paint an idyllic picture of Billie Jean’s sexual awakening: her first partner is sweet, lacks a personality and is all-too willing to put her life on hold for the tennis player (a waste of a perfectly good Andrea Riseborough). Not only that, Larry is the most understanding of husbands, who stops just short of saying “aw, shucks” when he discovers Billie Jean may be a lesbian. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Battle of the Sexes’ recreation of the early ’70s lacks finesse but it’s fine for the match itself — a garish spectacle closer to a high-school revue than a tennis game. The fact everybody knows Billie Jean destroyed Riggs robs Battle of the Sexes of its obvious climax, and it struggles to find a happy ending (it has to have one: this is a studio movie by the Little Miss Sunshine people). But that’s a tall order, especially considering how little changed as direct consequence of the match, outside of King and Briggs’ bank account balances.

Gender inequity is still a problem — it’s just gone from overt to veiled. ❧