2017’s Battle of the Sexes stars Emma Stone as tennis champion Billie Jean King who, after discovering that the World Lawn Tennis Association will be paying the men’s champion eight times more than the women’s winner, breaks off to form her own league alongside her fellow female players. Meanwhile, former tennis champion and gambling addict Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) endeavours to step back into the spotlight by challenging the world’s female tennis champion to an exhibition match and, determined to prove that women’s tennis is no joke, Billie Jean accepts his challenge, all the while trying to hide her forbidden relationship with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Risebirough).
Despite featuring some very good performances as well as plenty of relevant themes alongside smile-inducing moments (more on that in a little while), the first two thirds of Battle of the Sexes are a little bit of a slog to get through, due to the film’s subdued energy level, its very leisurely pace and the fact that the stories of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs seem too separate from each other. As I say, the performances and important themes keep it afloat but the film takes its time in getting to its showstopper finale and for the longest time, it seems too slow for its own good, too subdued as the energy levels are just a bit too low (lower than the trailer would suggest, anyway), even in the tennis scenes, of which there are actually too few of in the feature.
Plus, it takes quite a bit of time for Bobby and Billie Jean to appear together so until then, we see a split narrative that looks at Billie Jean fighting for equality, trying to keep her personal life a secret, and Bobby dealing with family problems, a gambling addiction and trying hard to make himself relevant again; the dual storylines are interesting enough (though Billie Jean’s narrative strand is far superior) but they seem too separate, like two different films in one, and although both characters’ arcs converge in the end, the jumping back and forth between the two characters goes on for just a bit too long and at the end of the day, the film may have benefited from focusing more on Billie Jean or if the film was more energetic and urgent.
Battle of the Sexes does take an upwards turn though when Emma Stone and Steve Carell actually appear together on screen and its very satisfying to see them bounce zingers and insults off each other and seeing that they both actually like and respect each other, despite the situation that they’re in, is nice to witness. The film’s energy levels do increase during a certain montage, where Bobby plays to the cameras as he does all sorts of manic, chauvinistic stunts and this all culminates in an appropriately exciting and engaging final tennis match; maybe it’s not the most exciting showdown ever seen in a sports film but it’s a scene that you can’t take your eyes off and there’s enough tension and doubt as to just how it’s going to finish – a very satisfying payoff.
Of course, plenty of people will be perfectly aware of just who eventually wins but for me, having never previously heard of this important match, not knowing which player actually won, it was fun to watch the match play out for the very first time and I’m glad that I completely avoided spoilers going into the film!
The film’s story is especially relevant and important in this day and age, given the existing gender pay inequality apparent in plenty of places, and the film works well in presenting its message: that paying men more than women is ridiculous and nonsensical – the film is never overly preachy and it never becomes an “issues film”. And in addition to the more serious side of the film, there is plenty of feel good comedy and many moments, mainly in the scenes featuring the small group of female tennis players, easily provide the audience with a smile or two since the banter and a few of the quips are infused with warm, gentle comedy.
Battle of the Sexes has a great cast and a few performances stand out; it may not be Emma Stone’s greatest performance ever but as Billie Jean King, she’s very likeable and she admirably throws herself into the role, continually getting us to support her as she confidently stands up to the patriarchy and fights the good fight and alongside her, Steve Carell is just right in the dramatic moments, not going overboard with the outrageous parts of the comedy, though I admittedly wanted to see him go just a little bit further in that regard. As for the supporting cast, Andrea Riseborough is a great fit as Marilyn, Billie Jean’s hairdresser friend who is forced to hide how she feels about Billie Jean; Riseborough and Stone have some wonderful, sensual chemistry that is very genuine and which gives her plot thread its impact. Also, Sarah Silverman steals plenty of scenes as group manager Gladys Heldman, a confident and likeable maternal figure, Alan Cumming is a warmly supportive kindred spirit as Billie Jean’s designer, and Bill Pullman is a hissable antagonist as the arrogant, condescending and sexist tennis promoter Jack Kramer who Billie Jean clashes with.
Plus, Natalie Morales in in this – it took me soooo long to figure out just where I knew her from, driving myself crazy before I remembered that she was Lucy in Parks and Recreation!