'Battle of the Sexes' Serves up Bland Drama

Steve Carell, Emma Stone (IMDB)

Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris capture the atmosphere of a tumultuous time, but this complicated story winds up a frustrating hodgepodge of tantalizing ideas and unconvincing drama.

Battle of the Sexes

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea RiseboroughLangham
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Rated: PG-13
Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-09-22
This is a story that needs to breathe, but the cluttered narrative suffocates all of the nuance and tension.
Some stories are just too big for the confined arena of cinema. The new biopic, Battle of the Sexes, takes a general survey approach to the epic 1973 tennis match between the top female player in the world, Billie Jean King, and the self-proclaimed face of male chauvinism, 55-year-old Bobby Riggs. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris lovingly re-create the look and atmosphere of a critical period in America’s inexorable (and ongoing) march towards gender equality. These were heady times, and Dayton and Faris, along with their uniformly excellent cast, take the angst and upheaval very seriously.

Your enjoyment of Battle of the Sexes will be helped with familiarity with not only the titular tennis match but the social backdrop that made it resonate so profoundly. The uninitiated will find a crowd-pleasing sports yarn with an extra layer of thematic substance. To those fluent in the history and politics of the time, however, this will be a frustrating hodgepodge of tantalizing ideas and unconvincing drama.

It’s almost impossible to articulate the seismic shift in gender politics that was occurring in the early '70s in America. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and the Supreme Court made its controversial decision on Roe v. Wade, while Title IX was opening new educational opportunities for women on college campuses.

And yet, women still earned pennies on the dollar compared to men and were subject to a level of institutionally and socially endorsed condescension that borders on the abusive. When Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), outraged that female tennis players made a fraction of what their male counterparts earned on the tour, broke from the United States Lawn Tennis Association to form a new union (hilariously endorsed by Virginia Slims cigarettes), she was challenging a patriarchal system that genuinely believed women were incapable of handling the stress of competition.

Proving once again that some things will never change, the general public bypassed these monumental social landmarks in favor of the sensational. In this case, over 90 million Americans watched King battle Riggs (Steve Carell), a former tennis champion and certified hustler, in a spectacle that was part circus and part professional wrestling. Riggs was the classic heel, eager to indulge the hatred of his enemies, while King was the virtuous battler who wanted to change the world. It was great theater, even if you hated tennis.

No matter how sensational the tennis match, however, it couldn’t touch the drama building in King’s personal life. Already married to her longtime friend, Larry (Austin Stowell), King must confront the growing realization that she’s sexually attracted to women. A sudden fling with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough as ‘Marilyn’) threatens to upset her marriage, the fragile new tennis union, and her carefully crafted public persona.

So how, with all of this human drama and historical heft at its core, does Battle of the Sexes still manage to fall flat?

The answer lies in the enormity of what King accomplished. She didn’t just win a tennis match; she started a fledgling union, hid a secret identity, became the face of the Equal Rights movement, and ascended to the top of the sports world. Capturing all of those elements, along with the zeitgeist of the early '70s, is the stuff of in-depth documentaries. That co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) sideswipe most of these issues rather than hitting them headlong is a consequence of time rather than intention.

With only two hours to tell the story, the filmmakers must settle for the most superficial treatment of highly complex issues. One minute King is flirting with Marilyn and the next minute they’re in love. Much is made of King’s obsessive drive for tennis perfection, and yet her training regimen is limited to one quick montage. When Larry and Marilyn finally meet -- clearly aware of the station their rival holds in King’s personal life -- all Larry can manage is a glib observation that tennis is King’s first love. This is a story that needs to breathe, but the cluttered narrative suffocates all of the nuance and tension.

Even more disappointing is the way Riggs is used. Carell, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the aging huckster, is a livewire whenever he appears on the screen. In arguably the film’s best scene, Riggs convinces a Gambler’s Anonymous support group that he can turn them from “gamblers to hustlers” if they follow his degenerate lead. Otherwise, Riggs is little more than a buffoonish caricature, pining for the affections of his disgruntled wife (Elisabeth Shue) and hustling friends out of their cash and cars. The match between King and Riggs isn’t formalized until midway through Battle of the Sexes, a crippling narrative decision that kills any forward momentum.

There’s still plenty to admire here, including the decision to shoot on glorious 35mm film. This gives a natural graininess to the textures, empowering the filmmakers to capture the look and feel of the '70s without relying on distracting tropes (like comical fashion choices). The performances by Stone and Carell are solid, with Stone looking particularly comfortable on a tennis court. Though the climactic match is re-enacted by tennis pros (and stunt doubles), Stone looks completely at ease with a clunky wooden racket in her hand.

Battle of the Sexes will make you feel good, despite its preordained conclusion. There's certainly value in that simplest of pleasures, but this truncated treatment leaves you wanting so much more. If this film introduces younger audiences to an amazing historical figure like Billie Jean King, then, perhaps, its many shortcomings can be excused. Still, at a time when boorish behavior and cavalier sexism is making daily headlines in Washington, you expect a bit more bite from something this socially relevant. It’s a shame that Battle of the Sexes feels like little more than a primer to a different, more fascinating film.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.