On the surface, Battle of the Sexes recounts the legendary tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. That match was billed as the Battle of the Sexes. And it was. But the film knows, as Billie Jean King knew, that Bobby Riggs was a showman, and the real battle was something much bigger than a few sets of tennis.
The last time we saw Emma Stone and Steve Carell on screen together, they played a father and daughter in the unreasonably wonderful picture Crazy, Stupid, Love. They were wonderful together then, and they’re even better together now. Both Stone and Carell positively evaporate into their characters and the cute father-daughter banter we saw before is ramped up to something that’s at once more bawdy and more nuanced.
We meet Bobby Riggs in his 50s. He’s in a towering office watching television. He shakes his head at the fawning attention Billie Jean King receives as the first female athlete to earn $100,000 in a year. He snaps of the television and we follow him home. Dinner with the family. He causes mischief with his young son, but there’s tension with his beautiful wife. He makes his excuses (work) and runs off to a tennis court where he plays elaborate games to bet against his friends. He plays while holding the leashes of two large dogs in one hand and chairs in his way. He wins. He’s happy. He goes back to his real world.
Meanwhile, Billie Jean is at the top of the world. She’s dominant and confident that her struggle for equality is about to pay off. It doesn’t and she does something drastic. She walks out of the organized tennis world and starts her own tour and conference. And because she is who she is, other female players follow her. They make waves. They win fans. They make money.
Organized tennis takes offense. Bobby Riggs sees opportunity. And so, the stage is set for a showdown. And the impact of that reckoning seems poised to ripple far beyond the court. If Battle of the Sexes were nothing else it would already be quite a fine movie. But this picture doesn’t stop at the surface level. It captures a cultural moment and, more importantly, portraits of two lives in transition. Neither Bobby nor Billie Jean can go on living as they are, and it takes the swirling vortex of events around them to help them each arrive at their truth. For a movie about a showy, snarky tennis session, Battle of the Sexes is powerfully emotional and subtly profound.
Whether it’s Billie Jean tearing down the tennis patriarchy with a devastatingly simple diagnosis — “It’s when we dare to want a little bit more, just a little bit of what you’ve got, that’s what you can’t stand.” — or Bobby dodging the reality of his own destructive habits with jibes about Gamblers Anonymous attendees being present not because they are gamblers, but because they are bad gamblers, Battle of the Sexes blends levity with aching realism to create a humanist portrait of intersecting lives during a time of change. Leave it to the directors of Little Miss Sunshine to find a sweet melancholy without losing the sports mythology.
Battle of the Sexes is a showcase of talent and storytelling from top-to-bottom. Stone will certainly find herself in the conversation come awards time. Though early buzz has (deservedly) focused on Stone, this critic is here to say we should throw Sarah Silverman’s hat in the ring for some supporting attention. Her spot-on delivery as the publicist who fought the battle for equality shoulder-to-shoulder with Billie Jean stands out as particularly delightful in a picture that boasts a murderer’s row of ensemble talent. And that’s not nothing.
See Battle of the Sexes for the cast and the laughs, stick around for the masterful storytelling that wins the day.