Hillary Clinton Won! - Battle of the Sexes
Well, not really. Donald Trump is still President of the United States. Hillary Clinton is still a private citizen. But for this one moment in history, it's as if the results turned out differently. The parallels are undeniable. The feminist icon who represents the hopes of multiple generations of women against the brashly chauvinistic avatar of the fragile male ego. For my money, this is actually the stuff the movie gets wrong. The big political messaging is anything but subtle. Meanwhile, the movie nails the personal intricacies of Billie Jean King's private life. Her relationship with her husband and a process of self-discovery save what could have been a mess of a movie. Ultimately, it winds up being just good enough to do justice to King's legacy.
The film starts with Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and her agent, Gladys (played by Sarah Silverman), advocating for equal pay for women in professional tennis. When their efforts are rebuffed by the men in power, they set out to form their own tour. In the process, they get the attention of a retired men's player with a loud mouth and a penchant for gambling, Bobby Riggs (played unevenly by Steve Carell). Looking for a chance at a big payday, he challenges Billie Jean King to a "Battle of the Sexes"--a match billed as determining who was better at tennis (and in many ways life), men or women.
Along the way, King not only deals with the gender politics of the early 70s, but also with a certain self-discovery regarding her marriage and sexuality. She falls for Marilyn (played by Andrea Riseborough), the hairdresser who travels with her on tour. When her husband (played by Austin Stowell) discovers that the two are lovers, he tries to be supportive of Billie Jean, her career and her process of self-understanding. All of this acts as the backdrop for a historical sporting event at a pivotal time in the fight for women's rights.
Period films that aren't executed perfectly can have a certain 'dress-up' quality to them. At its worst moments, Battle of the Sexes has the feeling of watching a bunch of people pretend. I don't know if it's the number of comedians--Carell, Silverman, Fred Armisen (of SNL fame), Dan Bakkedahl (of Veep fame), etc.--or just a lack of filmmaking skill, but something felt off the entire movie. It made it really hard to buy any of it, even though Stone was giving some of the best work of her career.
If the film has a saving grace, it is in the small moments that deal with Billie Jean's personal life. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris direct this subplot so well it made me wish the film wasn't about the famous match at all. A character study of Billie Jean herself without the focus on the obvious gender politics would have made for a more entertaining watch. As is, if you're anything like me, you'll cringe through all the moments you're forced to endure Carell's Riggs and keep hoping for more of the lady and her life.
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