Engaging and sunny, “Battle of the Sexes” is a two-headed biopic reluctant to complicate its coming-out story with too many complications.
The film’s team knows how to please a crowd. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made the wish-fulfillment smash “Little Miss Sunshine.” Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote the wish-fulfillment smash “Slumdog Millionaire.” Emma Stone, who plays sports legend Billie Jean King, broke hearts in the wish-fulfillment smash “La La Land.”
Stone’s co-star, Steve Carell, plays former tennis champion Bobby Riggs, who declared war on the “lib thing,” also known as the women’s movement, and women’s sports in particular. Riggs challenged 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.
The stakes were high in the contest, held at the Houston Astrodome in 1973 and watched by 50 million people. The impact of the match far exceeded the boundaries of a tennis court. King’s off-court life was consumed by a budding affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), conducted while King’s marriage to her husband, promoter and business partner Larry King, had many years left to go.
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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 is throwing most of the prize money to the male players. King and the other female players walk out and establish the Women’s Tennis Association. Brokered by World Tennis magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the Virginia Slims tour is born.
All this coincided with the 1972 Title IX law, designed to prohibit sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, including sports. 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. King, who’d turned Riggs down a few times, agreed to a match. Her strategy: keep him hustling all over the court to the point of fatigue.
The movie is determined not to demonize its major players. But there are tricky obstacles in “Battle of the Sexes.” The climactic match wasn’t suspenseful (6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in straight sets), so to the degree that this is a sports movie, it’s not an exciting one.
The larger obstacle relates to what isn’t on the screen. The King-Barnett relationship ultimately played out in a highly visible fashion after the movie’s time line. In 1981, Barnett outed King, suing her unsuccessfully for palimony and a house in Malibu, Calif. The movie wants none of what happened later messing up its gently rousing tale of one woman’s sexual enlightenment.
‘Battle Of The Sexes’
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity. 2:01. Fayette, Hamburg.