‘Battle of the Sexes’ admirable but misguided



Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in “Battle of the Sexes.”

Over 40 years ago, during the crest of second-wave feminism, more than 30 thousand people gathered in a concrete coliseum to watch Bobby Riggs play Billie Jean King in a televised tennis match dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Bobby, an aged Wimbledon champion known for his misogynistic statements and outlandish persona, claimed that women only belonged in the “kitchen or bedroom.” Billie, known for her activist roots within the sport, disagreed.

It’s a watershed moment in sports history, one where the preconceived gap between biology and athleticism was broken. It sounds like a great premise for a sports movie, right? Unfortunately, the movie that was implicitly promised doesn’t arrive until the last third of the film, and, while it’s a well-made section, it’s too late to salvage the muddled and shallow two-thirds that precede it.

Ostensibly, this is a film about an infamous tennis match with implications far outside the realm of professional sports. However, the construction and content of the film belies that implicit idea. It bounces from the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association to Bobby Riggs’s gambling problem to King’s exploration of her sexuality.

That isn’t to say these individual parts are poorly made. It’s just that their juxtaposition is clunky and unfocused. It’s a film with a scope so wide that it ends up not saying much about any of the topics it brings to the table. Is it a film about the foundation of the league? The first half hour would lead you to believe so. Bobby Riggs’s gambling addiction and the dissolution of King’s sham-marriage? Throw those in too.

It adds up to a film that doesn’t gel the way its filmmakers wanted it to. You can tell there’s a grander backstory to the match that they want to capture, and I can’t fault them for trying, but in saying a little bit of everything, it ends up saying almost nothing about anything.

“Almost” is the operative word there, as I would be remiss not to praise the film’s final third, which revolves around the eponymous match that helped define sports history. It’s an affecting, if safe, conclusion to the scattered snippets that proceeded it. The match itself isn’t nearly as exciting or tense as the directors want it to be — partially because of its assured outcome and partially because tennis itself can be a bit dull to watch. There are several shots of spectators moving their heads back and forth rhythmically to the metronome of the tennis ball — as if the game is performing a type of hypnosis to lull the audience to sleep.

The strongest scenes in the film occur after the match when the two players retreat to their respective locker rooms and contemplate the magnitude of what just happened. The solemn, singular shot of King crying into her palms as the camera situates itself right under her face contrasts nicely with the distance and cool demeanor of the defeated Riggs.

It’s here that the film almost breaks free of the standard Hollywood sheen enveloping it. Emma Stone and Steve Carell do what they can with the script they’re given, and both put their acting skills on full display for the camera, but the energy and talent are overpowered by the film’s structural problems.

Instead of focusing on one of the story’s elements — all of which deserve the run-time of a feature film — it instead tries to tackle a little bit of everything, resulting in a bit of a blurry mess. It’s a shame because the last third really pulls everything into focus; it’s just unfortunate it’s too little too late.