Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) may have been the number one tennis player in the world, but her talents were constantly being questioned by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the ATP. Her prize winnings were nowhere near as high as her male counterparts, pushing her into quitting the association to begin her own – where the sportswomen will feel worth something. But then comes Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) a former champion himself, and now a 55-year-old gambler, determined to wriggle his way back into the public conscience – doing precisely that when he challenges King to a match, to prove his claim that men are superior athletes.
Initially declining, when Riggs beats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee, King feels an obligation to take part and stop his shameless gloating and irresponsible rhetoric. But in the build up to the event, where she needs nothing more than to focus her mind – she falls in love – with a woman, as while seemingly happy in her marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell), she enters in to an illicit affair with her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).
There can be no denying how pertinent and rich in socio-political context Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes is, with a inspiring female protagonist at it’s core, championing gender equality. But the filmmakers adhere too prominently to the tropes of the sports genre, all leading up to the big, dramatic encounter at the end, whereas tonally it felt the film may have benefited from avoiding such an approach – for while a necessity Billie Jean King took place in the match, the entire endeavour was more about putting Bobby Riggs in his place rather than to prove herself as an athlete. She did that all year round on the court against her contemporaries, leaving you to question whether this exhibition event was worthy of such celebration the filmmakers placed upon it.
That said, a victory for King would mean a victory over prejudice and discrimination; it was would be a victory for the right people, and a shaming defeat from the wrong – and that can’t be forgotten. So the match does have meaning, and lots of it – it just isn’t perhaps depicted here in the right way, the significance of a potential win was more from a cultural and political perspective, whereas the film puts too much emphasis on the match. Thankfully, however, the complex love triangle at the core of the narrative gives the film a seperate focus too, which provides the film with its most compelling sequences, as Battle of the Sexes is at its best when the two female protagonists begin to realise they may have feelings for one another, transpiring in really charming, romantic scenes.
Stone is great, as always, in the leading role and Carell too impresses, playing Rigg almost as something of a pantomime villain, comedically obnoxious – and despite that, given the poison he perpetuates, is still a big part of the problem and the prevalent sexist attitude of the time. Unfortunately, however, the film does become a little too generic in parts, and while charming at times, and easy to indulge in at others – given the two filmmakers at the helm it was hard not to anticipate a film with a little more ingenuity than this.