Battle of the Sexes

by Toby Woollaston

botsTennis seems to be a cursed sport in the world of celluloid, often plumbing the depths of innuendo or injecting romance where it feels out of place. Even the great Woody Allen failed with Match Point.  Unfortunately Battle of the Sexes fares no better, with Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton continuing a slow decline since their excellent debut with Little Miss Sunshine.

At the centre of this true story is a tennis match between tennis great Billy Jean King and former number one Bobby Riggs.  It’s 1973, and King (played by Emma Stone) is the number one womens tennis player in the world. Her attempts to resist the public taunts of self-confessed male chauvinist, Riggs (played by Steve Carell), become too great when he offers her a large pot of money to beat him in a tennis match—a match he touts as “male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist”. It is a promoters dream and a genuine case of “only in America.”  However, bubbling beneath the buildup to the match are Billy Jean’s personal battles over her sexuality and its impact on her marriage.

In an attempt to find some sort of meaningful message, the film rallies between Bobby Riggs and his gambling addiction to Billy Jean King and her relational problems, and seemingly everything in-between. Unfortunately, Battle of the Sexes seems very unsure about what message it’s trying to give; raising women’s rights, sexual identity, gambling, pay equity, marital balance, etc. It just throws all the balls in the air and lets them land … mostly out of court.

It’s a docudrama, biopic, romance, and comedy all rolled into one story that deserved a more focused telling. It’s a shame when the most compelling part of a film is the “what became of them” text that appears prior to the credits.

To be fair, it’s not all mishits and double-faults—the film does manage to capture the look and feel of the seventies without falling into cliche retro. Also, there are some tender moments that briefly brought me out of my slumber, but don’t expect the sum of its many parts to add up to a coherent whole.

You can see my published reviews here.