A crowd-pleas­ing study in gen­der wars, love matches

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

Sunny (lit­er­ally; this is the bright­est, squin­ti­est film in months) and en­gag­ing, as far as it goes, “Bat­tle of the Sexes” is a twoheaded biopic re­luc­tant to com­pli­cate its com­ing-out story with too many … com­pli­ca­tions.

This will not be a prob­lem for most au­di­ences. Col­lec­tively, the “Bat­tle of the Sexes” team knows how to please a crowd. Its di­rect­ing team of Jonathan Day­ton and Va­lerie Faris made the wish ful­fill­ment smash “Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine.” The screen­writer Si­mon Beau­foy wrote the wish ful­fill­ment smash “Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire.” Emma Stone, who plays sports leg­end Bil­lie Jean King, broke hearts all over the place in the wish ful­fill­ment fan­tasy (bit­ter­sweet divi­sion) “La La Land.”

Stone’s co-star, Steve Carell, boasts a ca­reer born in com­edy and now con­ver­sant in a wide range of se­ri­o­comic and dra­matic projects. Here he plays the in­vet­er­ate hustler and for­mer ten­nis cham­pion Bobby Riggs, who de­clared war on the “lib thing,” aka the women’s move­ment and women’s sports in par­tic­u­lar, chal­leng­ing King to a best-of-five match when she was up and he was down and the world was primed for a gen­der-war gim­mick with teeth.

Deep inside the cir­cus of the Sept. 20, 1973, “bat­tle of the sexes” con­test, watched by 50 mil­lion peo­ple, the stakes were high, and se­ri­ous. The mean­ing and im­pact of the King-Riggs match far ex­ceeded the bound­aries of a ten­nis court. The whole time it was hap­pen­ing, King’s off-court life was con­sumed by a bud­ding af­fair with a hair- MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for some sex­ual con­tent and par­tial nu­dity) Run­ning time: 2:01 Opens: Thursday evening dresser, Mar­i­lyn Bar­nett, con­ducted while King’s mar­riage to her hus­band, pro­moter and busi­ness part­ner Larry King, had many years left to go.

This is the emo­tional fo­cus of “Bat­tle of the Sexes.” In the early scenes, King has con­quered the 1972 U.S. Open, but the pa­tri­ar­chal U.S. Lawn Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion (Bill Pull­man oozes avun­cu­lar priv­i­lege as its fig­ure­head, for­mer ten­nis champ Jack Kramer) is throw­ing most of the prize money to the male play­ers. King and the other women walk out and es­tab­lish the Women’s Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion.

Riggs, a com­pul­sive gam­bler, gets King’s ri­val champ, Mar­garet Court, to play him in a match that came to be known as the “Mother’s Day Mas­sacre.” Riggs pre­vailed that day. King, who’d turned Riggs down a few times, agreed to a match. If she could take care of Riggs, King fig­ured a win might change the coun­try’s think­ing on a lot of fronts.

Beau­foy’s script lobs be­tween King’s strug­gles and Riggs’ hus­tles. An­drea Rise­bor­ough plays Bar­nett, and as pho­tographed by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Li­nus Sand­gren, the scene where they meet in the salon chair is treated as an in­tox­i­cat­ing vi­sion of ro­man­tic prom­ise. The sub­se­quent re­la­tion­ship, a clos­eted af­fair for years, meant King ly­ing to her hus­band, risk­ing a ca­reer, po­ten­tially rup­tur­ing a bond with her tra­di­tional work­ing-class par­ents and gam­bling more than Riggs ever did.

The movie’s de­ter­mined not to de­mo­nize any of its ma­jor play­ers. But there are tricky ob­sta­cles in “Bat­tle of the Sexes.” The cli­mac­tic match wasn’t much in terms of sus­pense (6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in straight sets), and to the de­gree this is a sports movie, it’s not a very ex­cit­ing one.

So much has changed since 1973, and so much hasn’t. The lib thing is still a stick­ing point for about half of the na­tion, which is why the film’s both fun and a mild dis­ap­point­ment. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Emma Stone as Bil­lie Jean King crosses rack­ets with Steve Carell por­tray­ing Bobby Riggs in “Bat­tle of the Sexes.”

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