Battle of the Sexes is, on the surface level, a movie of twos. It depicts real life Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, two very different tennis players at two opposite ends of social and political thought. Battle is about their different lives and struggles and their coming together at a “battle of the sexes” tennis match. Battle is helmed by two directors, Jonathan Davis and Valerie Faris, who are best known for their debut feature Little Miss Sunshine. Unfortunately, this film suffers from their timid approach to the film’s subject matter and at the same time succeeds as a character study of a woman torn apart by the world around her.
Billie Jean (Emma Stone) is a young women’s tennis player who is a big proponent for feminism and equal pay among male and female tennis players. Bobby (Steve Carell) is a 55 year old male chauvinist and retired tennis player with a gambling problem. “You’re a feminist, right?” Bobby asks Billie Jean from a phone booth late at night. “No, I’m a tennis player that happens to be a woman.” Billie Jean answers from a hotel room on her national tennis tour. These two characters are at two different points in their lives, and the film highlights their differences. We spend more time with Billie Jean, who begins to struggle with her sexuality when she meets Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Riggs struggles with his gambling problem which manifests many times throughout the film, and sets the main conflict into place.
Battle has two excellent leads to explore. Stone’s performance as Billie Jean may be her best yet. She shows Billie Jean’s contained emotions in a lot of well displayed silent nuance. Between the affectionate glances she shoots at Marilyn, the tentative expressions looking away from her husband (Austin Stowell), and the challenging looks she gives Riggs, Stone gives us a performance that’s many things all at once. When King and Riggs intersect at the film’s climax, Stone is impossible to look away from. Carell also does a pretty good job with Bobby. He provides most of the comedy in the film, and although Bobby was a very open chauvinist, Carell plays him with a reserved pretentiousness that makes Bobby a bit more tolerable. Emphasis on a bit; Bobby really only exclusively serves as a foil to Billie Jean, and a large portion of his actions are extremely obnoxious.
Outside of the actors’ performances, there is still a lot going for the film. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is a sight to behold. Many of his shots are so artistically constructed that the film feels like a moving photography portfolio of beautiful shots and camerawork. The score by Nicholas Britell is also incredibly moving.
The film’s major flaw comes from a lack of any real depth, which stems from unfocused direction and writing. Battle fails to examine any of the events around it with a critical lense. For example, it is implied that a lot of Bobby Riggs’ male chauvinism is just for show; a ploy to get people to want to watch King and Riggs face off because they are so fundamentally different. However, it’s not really made explicitly clear whether he is sexist or not. It seems like an act, but is it? And if it is all an act, what about our society makes Riggs think he has to do this? While the film does have a definite stance on gender equality it fails to examine these themes in any meaningful way. The film is quick and ready to criticize Bobby on his sexist behaviors, but it never goes beyond that. The film is mostly buildup to a climatic tennis match that’s utterly compelling to watch, but once the match is over, what’s left? Not much, unfortunately.