‘Battle of the Sexes’ Review: Emma Stone and Steve Carell are dynamic in this empowering sports duel
Battle of the Sexes isn’t necessarily about the central tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Moreso, it’s about the battle that women of the time took up against overarching oppression, and the match is one of the pinnacle representations of that.
That’s what directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) lay out beneath the surface of the picture, and rightly so. To simply focus on the match would be a disservice not only to Billie Jean King’s efforts, but also to what women encounter on a systemic scope. In this light, we see Bobby Riggs not as the main antagonist, but as an example of masculine fragility that enforces and takes advantage of such a system. Toward the end of the film, King breaks down sobbing, and it’s not because of what just happened in the moment, but because of what it means moving forward. And in that moment, writer Simon Beaufoy inserts a nod to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights that is still ahead of them.
While the angle of a grander image of feminism lends Battle of the Sexes a larger weight and greater stakes, the film is sadly a bit un-engaging. There are so many moving parts — a brand new tennis association forming in the fight for women’s rights, Billie Jean King exploring her sexuality, marital issues stemming from her exploration, Bobby Riggs dealing with gambling issues and post-fame withdrawal, Riggs manipulating the system in order to face off against King and how all of that represents the system at work and its impacts — and the film begins to buckle as it struggles to work each layer into a dynamic, unified progression.
Fortunately, though, Emma Stone and Steve Carell are both absolutely dynamic as King and Riggs, respectively. While Stone is mostly just good during moments of outward expression, it’s in King’s vulnerability where her acting chops shine — similar to her moments of strength in La La Land. However, it’s Carell who steals the show. We can see threads of the boisterousness of Michael Scott, but there’s something much more egotistically charismatic about Carell’s performance here. His energy is infectious and, with a slightly altered look in hair and teeth, there’s a physicality through which that energy manifests. And, in terms of that masculine fragility, Carell sells the dramatic moments when Riggs’ shell starts to break and his confidence is humbled. It’s certainly one of his best performances.
Those performances push us through the slower moments, rendering Battle of the Sexes worthwhile for what it hopes to achieve with its larger message.
Featured image via Fox Searchlight.