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Emma Stone and Steve Carell Face Off in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (Review)

On its face, it’s absurd that a tennis match would matter much in the fight for women’s rights. But in the rousing biopic Battle of the Sexes, Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris reveal the context and personal stakes of the pivotal 1973 match between Women’s tennis star Billie Jean King and former men’s champ Bobby Riggs. And amid Riggs’ well-documented antics and King’s dogged fight for equal pay, this disarmingly charming drama reveals how the political is inherently personal.

Simon Beaufoy’s sprightly screenplay parallels the journeys of King and Riggs as both barrel toward the climactic showdown. At 29, King (Emma Stone) was tired of playing her heart out on tours where she only stood to make 1/8 of her male counterparts. So, she starts her own all-female tour, which threatens to be a make-or-break moment for all its participants. The news coverage of this catches the eye of not-so-reformed gambler and former World Number One, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Having been booted by his wife (Elisabeth Shue), roguish Riggs decides his way back to wealth and redemption is an exhibition match against the best women’s tennis has to offer.

King is reluctant to share the court with a clown who gamely gambols on the court with prop frying pans, outlandish costumes, and live sheep. But with the notorious big mouth endlessly mocking her battle for equal pay and her entire gender, somebody has to shut him up. And yet King is reluctant to call herself a feminist. When the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” calls her one, King responds annoyed, “I’m a tennis player who happens to be a woman.”

Here is the core of their differences: The Battle of the Sexes is just a game for the Riggs, another racket to score him some quick cash and renewed fame. But for King, she’s fighting for the right to just exist on the same terms Riggs gets to take for granted. It’s not political to her. It’s rational. It’s not a game. It’s her life.

Notably, Battle of the Sexes manages to keep things breezy over preachy by devotedly focusing on the lives of its dueling protagonists. Whether he’s posing nude in a parody pin-up style, barking a taglines to King over a pay phone, or swallowing handfuls of pills dolled out by a sketchy looking nutritionist (Fred Armisen, casting that seems a joke in itself), Carell is a cad both cringe-inducing and undeniably funny. He allows us to laugh at and judge Riggs, but never pushes so hard as to keep us from empathizing with this desperate admittedly flawed family man. He gives a performance that continues a track of complicated and compelling portrayals. But make no mistake, this is Stone’s movie. Moving away from the ingenue roles that have made her a Hollywood darling, she’s digging into something more mature and nuanced here. And she hits it out of the park, creating not an impression of King, but a complex portrait of her virtues and flaws.

Aside for King’s quest to defend her tour, her colleagues, and her very career, Battle of the Sexes also folds in the famous tennis player’s first flirtation with a same-sex relationship. Married at the time to a doting husband who looks like a living Ken Doll (Austin Stowell), King is nonetheless drawn to breezy bohemian hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The two’s romance begins unexpectedly over a haircut. Dayton and Faris brew sensuality out of this simple, intimate scene with close-ups of Marilyn’s fingers gently running through King’s hair, as a surprise smile breaks across her face. The tension and passion build over a dance date, where beautiful washes of pink and blue lights swim along with a dreamy “Crimson and Clover” cover. The risk of this romance is electric; it’s taboo double-edge with infidelity and society’s homophobia. But with an easy but sexy smile, Riseborough embodies swoon, while Stone’s portrayal is brilliantly streaked with desire, guilt, and undeniable attraction. On the courts, Stone’s King is a force, in private with Marilyn, she’s lost but in love. With heat and gentle compassion, theirs makes for one of the most gripping seductions this year.

Along the sidelines of this compelling rivalry, are more supporting turns that bring sparkle and breathless laughs to Battle of the Sexes. Martha MacIsaac and Natalie Morales bring whimsy and snark as two of King’s tour mates. With a streak of silver hair, a cigarette always at the ready and a smile that feels like a dare, Sarah Silverman struts about the supreme manager and mother hen of these young women, laying down hard truths and ice cream sundaes as needed. Lastly Alan Cumming is a radiant scene-stealing scamp as the tour’s personal tennis dress designer, who is a master of camp and side-eye, but also a crucial shoulder to cry on.

All in all, Battle of the Sexes reminds me of last year’s standout historical drama Hidden Figures. Both tackle an issue of inequality that is shamefully still relevant, but with a lively and inspiring story full of three-dimensional and captivating characters that encourage over condemn. It doesn’t feel like a history lesson or a sermon. It feels like a conversation, laced with purpose and passion, but so generously sprinkled with charm, heart, and humor you might wish it’d never end.


Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews hereFollow her on Twitter! 

Image: Fox Searchlight

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