Battle of the Sexes tells the story of the events leading up to a 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), a woman, and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a man, the outcome of which won’t surprise you even if you don’t know what happened going in. After all, the movie is only worth being made if King comes out on top; as shown in this film, Riggs played a number-one woman’s tennis player earlier and nobody remembers that, because he won.
We begin well before their eventual match, though. An early scene has a group of female tennis players deciding to start their own tennis tour after being declined equal-to-the-men tournament winnings. They go on their tour, with King headlining. She was the number one player in the world at the time. King meets a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) and has an affair with her—despite being married, and knowing that a gay love affair could ruin the sponsorship of the tour. This was the 1970s, after all. From there, the film details the months that lead up to the match with Riggs, both from her side playing on the tour and Riggs’ side, which sees him gamble and hustle his way into a rocky relationship with his wife (Elizabeth Shue).
Eventually, they play. Riggs was 55 years old at the time, well past his physical prime, while King was in hers. A loss would have been devastating for woman’s tennis; a win makes one feel good but ultimately doesn’t mean a whole lot. King was and still is a champion for equality, and Battle of the Sexes brings that message to the forefront for its majority.
It was nice to get enough time to know King prior to her participation in the match against Riggs. We see her agenda, we understand why she feels the need to have the match, and we’re on her side. Riggs gets less time to develop as a character, with only the few scenes with his wife showing us anything close to how he actually is. Most of the time, he’s playing a cartoon villain—drumming up crowd reactions like a wrestler by calling himself a “chauvinistic pig.”
Battle of the Sexes knows exactly what it wants to do and it does it.
I don’t know if a more interesting movie would have focused more on Riggs or not. Maybe humanizing him—it’s clear he doesn’t believe most of the things he says—would have made him a more viable candidate for our affection, which would have gone against its message and for whom the movie hopes we cheer. It’s tougher to be a crowd-pleaser, which Battle of the Sexes absolutely wishes it is—if half the audience is rooting for the person who loses. I guess that’s where the balance between great movie and crowd-pleaser has to be struck.
I’m not saying Battle of the Sexes is a bad movie, either. Far from it. It’s got a few goals and it achieves them. It’s got some laughs, there’s a strong emotional release at the end, the themes of equality for women and LGBTQ rights come through loud and clear, the tennis scenes are pretty good, and the acting is great. It’s a one-sided portrayal of the story, but that’s not an inherent problem, especially with the type of movie that was being created here. It doesn’t want balance. (And that’s fine.)
Emma Stone is the standout of Battle of the Sexes. After winning an Oscar just a year ago, it looks like she’s on her way to another nomination here. The determination she has on her quest, and the emotional relief that comes after, are both wonderful, and Stone is great. Steve Carell works well as the showboating loudmouth—but the character is too lacking to fully use his talents. Smaller roles go to Andrea Riseborough, Alan Cumming, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, and Elisabeth Shue, among others, who are all solid.
Battle of the Sexes knows exactly what it wants to do and it does it. It doesn’t want to create a balanced and detailed biopic of its two leads; it wants to tell its story primarily from the perspective of Billie Jean King and champion her real-life goals. Emma Stone is great as King, and the film’s aims at promoting equality are admirable. The story is fine, and while it would have been nice to get more depth for Bobby Riggs as a character, it might have made the film’s crowd-pleasing ambition more difficult to achieve. Ultimately, The Battle of the Sexes is a pretty good movie that does what it sets out to do.
Conclusion: Battle of the Sexes has moderate goals and achieves them. It’s the crowd-pleaser it wants to be.
Recommendation: Battle of the Sexes might not be the in-depth tennis movie you’d want, but it does entertain and is worth watching on that merit.