Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in slick, fun story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs
‘Battle of the Sexes” gets its retro right.
It’s not always an easy thing to do. When U2 played Ford Field earlier this month, they performed their landmark 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” front-to-back, in its entirety. The aim was to put the album in the context of today, but Bono and the boys missed the mark, failing to find any connective tissue with the issues of 2017. It was a pure nostalgia play, locked inside a time capsule like a display at a museum.
“Battle of the Sexes” takes place in 1973 but its issues are modern and relevant. It takes on the exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which was steeped in sexism and antiquated views on the differences in the abilities of men and women.
Sound familiar? The questions of equality, especially in pay, still rage today, as do issues with the acceptance of homosexuality in sports. Those matters give filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the duo behind “Little Miss Sunshine” (and some of your favorite 1990s music videos), a motive for the story beyond playing dress-up with 1970s styles. They make the film resonate in a contemporary context, which is what you want when you’re telling a story of yesteryear: A reason to be telling it today.
“Battle of the Sexes” doesn’t hit you with a tennis racket with its politics; its first priority is entertainment, and it’s an overhand smash in that department. The performances glide, the visuals hum, and the vibe is meaty without ever being weighty. This is exquisite pop filmmaking.
Emma Stone, fresh off her “La La Land” Oscar, stars as Billie Jean King, the No. 1-ranked women’s tennis player who, as the movie opens, is waging war with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), creator of the “Open” tournaments. Billie Jean demands higher pay for women, matching the paydays of her male counterparts. Kramer, who believes thoroughly that women are inferior athletes (“it’s just biology,” he reasons flatly) isn’t having it. So Billie Jean starts a circuit of her own.
While she’s fighting a public battle for gender equality, internally Billie Jean’s wrestling with her sexuality. She’s married to her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) but falls for her female hairdresser, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Bloodline”). Not only is she hiding the affair from Larry, she has to keep it private from the sport, which, in the context of the day, is not quite open to homosexuality.
Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is already washed up and past his prime. As a 55-year-old in the movie’s opening, the former champ is playing gimmick matches for side bets, trying to earn enough money to support his gambling habit, and is on the brink of getting kicked out of his house by his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).
Riggs is a sort of proud clown and harmless ham — Carell is a perfect fit for the role — who gets a kick out of playing into the gender attitudes of the day. “I put the ‘show’ back in chauvinism!” he brags at one point.
He challenges Billie Jean to a televised match with a $100,000 purse and the “Battle of the Sexes” showdown is set. (The match drew about 90 million sets of eyeballs.) The script by Simon Beaufoy (an Oscar winner for his “Slumdog Millionaire” screenplay) perfectly balances the on-court action with the off-court drama, and Dayton and Faris give the story the right amount of pluck so that it feels both personal and commercial, buoyant but never burdensome.
Stone is solid as Billie Jean King while Carell takes on the jester role with the right mix of hustler, sleazeball and bozo. In a supporting role, Sarah Silverman shines as a put-upon promoter trying to keep everyone’s spirits high; only Riseborough comes off flat, not offering Marilyn the emotional depth needed to give her and Billie Jean’s story the warmth and mettle it deserves.
Still, for all the balls it has in the air, “Battle of the Sexes” does a superb job of keeping a consistent volley. Like a great tennis match, the momentum never slows and the movie remains light on its feet, never getting tripped up over itself. Slick and fun, “Battle of the Sexes” is an ace.
‘Battle of the Sexes’
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity
Running time: 121 minutes