What was the last sports movie that completely failed to capture the cinematic dynamism of the sport?
That’s the most compelling question inspired by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ woefully misguided Battle of the Sexes, their first outing since the smash debut Little Miss Sunshine. This writing and directing duo have no idea which story of the many on display here they’re trying to tell, and none of the strands work in their own right.
Most of the film plays like a biopic of tennis legend Billy Jean King, yet it focuses on too limited of a period in her life to present a sufficiently complete portrait of her character. Plus, she’s portrayed as nothing less than a saint, almost an unrelatable character type; basically her only mistake in the entire movie is cheating on her husband. But since she did so to make love for the first time with a woman – an act she almost needed to hide behind a wedding ring to maintain her public standing – it’s easily and intentionally forgiven. Though I understand the noble desire to turn someone who withstood such subjugation into a hero, a truer ode to her legacy would’ve honored her as an actual human.
Much of the movie concerns her homosexual awakening, yet by no means does it paint a fully-satisfying picture of her first relationship with a woman, largely because Steve Carrell — turning in yet another Steve Carrell performance as Bobby Riggs — keeps awkwardly popping back into the proceedings. If the marketing is to be believed, Battle of the Sexes actually chronicles the landmark, man vs. woman matchup between Riggs and King, yet Dayton and Faris’ ultimate inability to properly showcase the actual showdown torpedoes this through-line as well.
As does their failure to substantively plumb the depths of its sexism. In a time when the issue is as hot-button as ever, this aspect of the tale should’ve had modern resonance. Yet since the misogyny is depicted without a hint of nuance, with no effort expended to understand its roots in the characters, the moral dilemma that should engage contemporary audiences instead proves alienating from being too black-and-white.
The disempowerment of women is as old as it is pervasive, but its stripped of its impact here by relying on such conventionally over-the-top manifestations. Even if they’re true to life — and they probably are —Dayton and Faris could’ve approached them from a fresh perspective in hopes of shedding new light on this age-old problem. Instead, the phenomenon feels ineffectively rote. Even if the figures don’t deserve sympathy or even empathy, quality art transcends evil to discover the universal. Villainizing will never be as artistically interesting as understanding.
The way they handle Riggs’ relationship to his abhorrent behavior on television perfectly illustrates their surface-deep excavations. Throughout the movie, characters suggest that it’s all an act to drum up ratings. Though the horrid opinions of women that he expresses on the boob tube may fan the anti-female flames for listeners who already hold such beliefs, the more interest he garners in the televised event, the more attention will be paid to King, who’s finally playing on the sort of sufficiently-sizable platform that her talent warrants yet her sex prevented her from attaining on her own.
This question of whether Riggs’ darker, potentially advertising-minded behavior is worth the greater good he promises — maybe falsely — obviously pertains to the here and now with America’s current salesman-in-chief. Yet instead of digging into this idea, it’s given a rudimentary pass-over before the movie lurches to another under-drawn storyline.
Perhaps to compensate for the material’s mere-shading, Emma Stone turns in a meticulously manufactured performance that ends up feeling more performative than organic, further contributing to the suffocating lack of naturalism throughout.
Highlighting Dayton and Faris’ haphazard balancing act, the best performances in the movie belong to supporting turns, none of whom are given their due. Sarah Silverman keeps showing off her immense dramatic skills — always tinged with comedy, of course — yet she’s basically cast off as an afterthought after the first quarter of the movie, another sign of Dayton and Faris’ lack of grasp on the story they wanted to tell. Also, how dare they waste Alan Cumming in a role that’s nothing more than a sassy gay comedic aside. And while we’re on the topic, why would they not give the criminally-underused Chris Parnell more to do for one of his tragically-rare on-screen appearances?!
Though Little Miss Sunshine still stands as a testament to the talent of Dayton and Faris, their borderline incompetence here infects every component of Battle of the Sexes.