Directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris continue their streak of slyly subversive, yet totally engaging, films with Battle of the Sexes, an insightful, exciting and unexpectedly hilarious recounting of the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Like all Dayton-Faris outings, it breathes new life into familiar tropes while cleverly dismantling them: the family road trip comedy of Little Miss Sunshine that’s full of people who will never reach their full potential. The dream-girl fantasy of Ruby Sparks, where magical powers are creepy, not hilarious. And now, the historical sports movie where neither athleticism nor social progress is a metaphor for the other, but is valued in its own right.
Battle of the Sexes
PG-13, 121 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema
Battle of the Sexes tells the story of how the famed match came to be. We meet King (Emma Stone) as she confronts representatives of the United States Lawn Tennis Association over pay inequality between men and women, despite equal ticket sales. King and publisher and sponsor Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) launch their own tour featuring the shining stars of women’s tennis. Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) is a 55-year-old former world champion whose talent is only outshined by his insatiable need to hustle, gamble and find the edge in any potential competition. Riggs and his cigar-chomping chauvinist buddies take notice of the up-and-coming women’s tournament, and see dollar signs. Riggs then pulls every string—and lures every potential sponsor—with a massive spectacle: men versus women, who is better on the court?
Tennis is the battleground in the struggle for women’s liberation in this story, but Battle of the Sexes does not fall into the trap of putting the stakes aside for an exciting conclusion. Many sports films with social dimensions coax you into confusing a victory on the court/field with a world victory, leaving many threads dangling as you bask in the afterglow of seeing the bigots eat dirt, but Battle of the Sexes is much more intelligent than that. King’s sexuality is a key component of the narrative—though married to a man, she begins dating her hairdresser who joins them on tour—and it’s something she can never go public with. The tennis match is about gender equality, and the film ends with an acknowledgment that there are many more struggles to come, though that does not diminish this one.
In addition to the film’s look, intelligence and nailing the tricky tone, the cast of Battle of the Sexes is truly excellent. Stone, already on a hot streak of great performances, delivers a layered, thoughtful portrayal of King, filled with emotion, ambition and good humor. Carell’s take on Riggs, interestingly, is not that of a fiery, explicitly hateful misogynist, though he certainly feels comfortable in their presence. He is a clown, a larger-than-life personality who never passes up a chance to profit on a hot gambling tip or a social trend, and women’s liberation happens to be his ticket. Everyone may be cheering for King the whole time, but he is more than a heel for the audience to hate.
The message of Battle of the Sexes-—beyond celebrating a key moment in the struggle for sexual equality at a time when its advocates could still unironically be called “libbers”—is the intersection of material and symbolic victories. Far better than it had to be, in making an effort to connect to today’s audience without diminishing the period atmosphere, complete with an absolutely riveting conclusion, Battle of the Sexes is an utter triumph.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
American Assassin, American Made, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Mother!, Xanadu: The Glow-along
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
American Assassin, American Made, A Question of Faith, Dunkirk, Flatliners, Friend Request, Home Again, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle,The Lego Ninjago Movie, Mother!, Spider-man: Homecoming, Stronger
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
American Made, Brad’s Status, Columbus, IT, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Mother!, Stronger, Wind River