Based on a true story, Battle of the Sexes portrays the real life story of world tennis champion Billie Jean King’s struggles for gender equality and due recognition for women’s contributions to tennis. Her endeavours culminate in an epic match against self-proclaimed 'male chauvinist pig' Bobby Riggs. Behind the scenes, both players have their personal demons to face, but on the court, all is put to the side as they face-off to prove which is the better sex.
1970s America was a man’s world, as Billie Jean and friend Gladys Heldman (played fabulously by Sarah Silverman) are all too aware of. Still, their appalment at the blatant unfairness in the huge discrepancy between the prize money offered to the women and men’s competitions (Bill Pullman is perfect as Grade A asshole Jack Kramer) provokes them to break away from the USLTA and set up their own competition and organisation. It’s an inspiring story and the viewer will be drawn in, especially as the narrative turns to Billie Jean meeting hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Marilyn eventually becomes Billie Jean's lover in spite of her being married.
Their burgeoning relationship is portrayed touchingly with some really nice cinematography, and you feel for the tennis player’s struggles to come to terms with her sexuality. This is made more complex still by the fact that her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) is a really nice guy. While Billie Jean’s story proves engaging and emotive, an achievement which is down to its wonderful actors – Stone, as always, is a revelation, portraying the steeliness of King to inspiring effect – the pacing of Battle of the Sexes is somewhat stunted by its cutting between this and the far less interesting story of Bobby Riggs.
Because this portion of the film is less evocative and more monotonous, the pacing of the film as a whole ends up falling somewhere between slow burning and a strong sense of momentum. This is partly down to Steve Carell’s performance, which doesn’t see him do anything particularly outside his comfort zone, with the role seeming like just a reiteration of performances in the past, but also down to his character set-up. In the trailer, we see him perform the chauvinist, obnoxious side of his character, as he shows off playing in a dress or with a frying pan, turning the sport into a glorious carnival. Yet in the film, the comedy falls flat because what came before these moments is a painting of the character's sadder side as his marriage is failing and he denies his addiction to gambling. Thus, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don’t achieve quite that balance between pathos and comedy which we saw in their previous works Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks. Another problem with the movie is Simon Beaufoy’s script which feels riskless and relies a little too much on clichés like ‘what do you want from life?’ and ‘I’m gonna be the best’ (*Cue Pokemon theme song*).
There is much to like in Battle of the Sexes due to the contemporary and inspiring nature of its story, plus it's uplifting seeing pretty much everything work out alright and everyone be nice (aside from Pullman’s Kramer). However, there’s no point denying that the film is flawed and come awards season, it wouldn’t be too great a sin if it ends up being glossed over.