Battle of the Sexes

Directed By: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Eric Christian Olsen, and Andrea Riseborough
I've been away from STMR for quite a while now, and the reason has primarily been that I've had nothing to say.  It's nice to have been on the sidelines as the summer box office tanked and as the masses ignored their local cineplexes.  Quality wasn't there on the big screen, so I did not invest any time or energy much like many of my loyal readers. That being said, the fall movie season is upon us, and it may just be time for me to re-emerge to voice my opinion once again.  I have certainly been asked for my thoughts on the latest and greatest at the box office on more than a few occasions as of late.  With all this in mind, I wanted to start with a film that speaks to the moment in society today.  

Given the havoc wreaked by climate-fueled natural disasters, escalating international tensions with nuclear implications, and the rather sad showdown between Trump and the NFL, the brilliant Mother! would certainly have been quite a fitting pick. There's something else that's been happening as well to which I'd like to speak.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been back on the scene.  She's been talking about what happened and how we ended up with the Con Man in Chief.  While we can all point fingers at her shortcomings as a candidate, Russian interference, or James Comey putting his fingers on the scale of the election, one thing remains an incalculable but obvious factor — sexism.  Gender bias is something that has permeated our nation since its founding.  While I won't delve into HRC and the 2016 election in any more depth, I will talk about the recently released Battle of the Sexes.  This is a film that speaks to our present by looking at our past and serving up an amusing but thought-provoking piece of relatively recent history.

It’s 1973.  29 year-old Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has made quite a name for herself in the world of women’s tennis and is considered to be one of the best in the world.  Still, Billie Jean is very much cognizant of the barriers in place that keep her and all her female colleagues from achieving the same level of success as their male peers.  When Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) shares with her that men would be paid eight times as much in an upcoming tournament, Billie Jean is incensed.  Considering that the male and female stars boast equal volumes of ticket sales, she has a legitimate bone to pick and sets her sights on tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the organizer of the tournament.  When she confronts him about the unequal pay, things don’t go quite as planned.  Billie Jean ends up storming out to partner with Gladys and start their own women’s league.  Without money to sponsor this, Billie Jean and the players who join her take a bold gamble with their careers. 

55-year old hall of fame tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) has a serious gambling problem, and his wife Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue) is tired of footing the bill.  After years of promises that he would stop and countless support and therapy sessions, Bobby finds himself feeding his addiction on a regular basis.  His marriage is suffering consequently, and he’s looking for a big win that will help him keep a happy home.  When he gets wind of what’s happened with Billie Jean King and the women’s league, he sees an opportunity to make a sure bet on the controversy.  Bobby proposes a battle of the sexes to Billie Jean, who promptly declines the spectacle.  While Bobby pursues his vision, Billie Jean focuses less on the game and more on a blossoming affair with her new hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Battle of the Sexes is a surprisingly rousing sports dramedy that touches on many social themes prevalent at the moment.  The most obvious example of this is sexism, its impacts, and how courageous souls have countered it.  It certainly doesn’t shy away from LGBT rights, addiction, and a host of other relevant topics.  What makes Battle of the Sexes truly entertaining though is the absolutely compelling storytelling by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.  The Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine directors rise to the occasion to blend larger than life athletic competitions with engaging personal tales and quip-laced character interactions.  You can see it in the fast and furious camerawork that adds to the spectacle of each and every match.  You can hear it in the quiet moments that enable the personal turmoil in our main characters’ lives resonate quite loudly.  You can feel it in the gut-wrenching laughs that follow the trash talking and antics of Dayton and Faris’s talented ensemble.  Yes, Battle of the Sexes is a thoroughly entertaining film, and it will appeal to just about anyone who appreciates fine moviemaking.

The film is anchored by two impressive performances from its leads.  Both take fairly drastic turns from other performances they’ve delivered in recent work.  For her part as Billie Jean King, Emma Stone gives a measured, fairly intense take of the famous tennis champion.  A stoic laser-focused competitor, love seems more like a distracting elixir than a passionate addiction for her character.  Not the effervescent star we saw in last year’s erroneously named best picture La La Land, Stone demonstrates her range as an actress by lacing up sneakers and going out on the tennis court.  For his part as Bobby Riggs, Steve Carell steps into very ostentatious territory.  He’s garrulous.  He’s desperate.  He’s foolish.  Wearing pigheaded yet charismatic chauvinism as his armor, Carell serves up one wild performance.  It’s quite opposite of what we’ve seen from him as of late in films like The Big Short and Foxcatcher, but it’s thoroughly satisfying.

My father was a tennis aficionado, and I was exposed to more than my fair share of the sport throughout my childhood.  It’s safe to say that I didn’t fall in love with it.  That sentiment has stuck with me for the majority of my life and largely still holds true.  Nonetheless, I’ve got a soft spot for Battle of the Sexes.  Showcasing the ugly side of chauvinism and what a few courageous women did to challenge it for all the public to see, Dayton and Faris blend comedy, competition, and commotion to craft one engaging piece of cinema.  Politically charged and socially timely, Battle of the Sexes gets a 0.03% rating. Have some wine coolers with this one.