Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is okay, but far from the grand slam I was rooting for. I love the story, especially because it’s true: tennis great Billie Jean King agrees to play ex-champ and self-professed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in a high-profile televised event and kicks his butt, scoring a huge victory for the women’s rights movement in the 1970s. That’s not a spoiler. It’s a well-known fact in sports history. Unfortunately, without the dramatic climax that typically drives a sports drama, Battle of the Sexes is forced to look for bonus points off the court. They include: an exploration of Billie Jean’s sexual awakening as a lesbian and the strain that puts on her marriage; Bobby’s marital woes, childish antics and addiction to gambling; and, my favorite part of the film, Billie Jean’s willingness to take a stand for equal rights and social justice by, in part, organizing other players to break from the establishment and form the Women’s Tennis Association.

One thing Battle of the Sexes definitely has going for it, is a strong cast. Oscar-winner Emma Stone (La La Land) is sufficiently convincing as Billie Jean King, and Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine) has the resemblance and versatility to make Bobby Riggs ridiculously annoying and sympathetic. The supporting cast includes Andrea Riseborough (Nocturnal Animals) as Billie Jean’s hairdresser and love interest Marilyn; Sarah Silverman (The Book of Henry) as spunky tennis promoter and co-founder of the Virginia Slims tournament Gladys Heldman; an under-utilized Elisabeth Shue (The Karate Kid) as Riggs’ wife; and Bill Pullman (Independence Day, While You Were Sleeping) as the influential president of the US Lawn Tennis Association who didn’t want to pay women their fair share.

I did learn a few new and interesting tennis tidbits watching this film, including how and why the “Virginia Slims” tournament came into being, and that tennis champ Margaret Court played Bobby Riggs before Billie Jean did (I won’t spoil the outcome of that one, but let’s just say, Court doesn’t come off so great in this narrative). Overall, there are no major villains in Battle of the Sexes. The “bad guys” come off as more ignorant and misguided than evil. And there’s no real animosity between Riggs and King. So that leaves the message. Battle of the Sexes is ultimately about taking a stand and making a difference, and that’s a good thing. Just don’t be fooled by ads that make Battle of the Sexes look like the next Hidden Figures. This is not a movie “for the whole family” unless the whole family is over 13 or ready to discuss mature themes that don’t play out on center court.

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