I know this looks like a movie about tennis or gender equality. It’s both and neither at the same time. “Battle of the Sexes” has recent Oscar winner Emma Stone very much in the lead, and Steve Carell once again is teaming with his Little Miss Sunshine directors for another oddball supporting performance. Like the best movies seemingly about sports, we don’t see much tennis on-screen in the final act. What we do see is a young professional in the mid 70s struggling to be someone society doesn’t accept. A better title would have been the battle of sexuality. The beautiful mix of drama and comedy comes from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours,” “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”), meaning it’s beyond cheeky and sarcastic while at the same time driving home the type of message that even press and industry members cheered for at the Toronto International Film Festival.
All Billie Jean King (Stone) and the other American female tennis players wanted was the same pay as the men. “It’s not your fault. It’s just biology,” Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), former tennis player and professional radio commentator explained to King. Former number one tennis player Bobby Riggs (Carell), now age 55 has a gambling and attention problem. He challenges King to a high-profile match to prove men are better tennis players. While Riggs goes on tour to promote the “Battle of the Sexes,” King is dealing with her own personal issues. While married to Larry (Austin Stowell), Los Angeles hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) becomes a distraction for King, allowing her true desires to be known for the first time, just at the wrong time.
Stone won the Oscar for the wrong movie, but that isn’t the first or last time that will happen (i.e. Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, Meryl Streep). The “La La Land” actress is at her absolute best. For the first time in her entire career, gone is the nerdy girl-next-door persona, evaporated into something we’ve never seen from her before. Stone carries the weight of the film, at least its most dramatic aspects. Carell fosters the laughs and ridiculousness as the larger than life Riggs. The screenplay could have equally divided the character development between the two, but Riggs, despite being interesting, is someone the audience already knows. Carell and the script never allow Riggs to become a villain and someone you hate. That role belongs to Kramer.
“Battle of the Sexes” covers a lot of ground with tennis history, the feminist movement and the often under-discussed female sexual curiosity. It never loses sight of what’s important and ends with much more than just a game of tennis. The production value is quite good at embedding the audience into the ‘70s with logos, old remotes and especially hairstyles. Both Riseborough (Stone’s co-star in “Birdman”) and Alan Cumming (“X-Men: United”) are wonderful in supporting roles on the King camp. One of the more unique and tricky scenes occur with Larry and Marilyn. “I’m not the competition,” he says. “We are both the side shows. Tennis is her true love.” “Battle of the Sexes” is that rare entertaining film with depth and originality that can make a point and please a crowd.
Final thought — Stone gives her best performance in a rousing crowd pleaser that’s as fun to watch as it is important to learn from.