Greg Eichelberger reviews "Battle Of the Sexes"

By: 
Greg Eichelberger
Staff Writer

Did we really DRESS like this? Was lesbianism as big of a a deal in 1973 as it seems to be today? Were Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs REALLY that attractive? And, would King have fared as well against a Jimmy Conners, an Arthur Ashe, or an Ilie Nastase?
These were just a few of the questions I had while watching "The Battle Of the Sexes," a skewered look back at the famed tennis match between King, the No. 1 women's player and 55-year old former champ and professional hustler, Riggs, that took place at the Houston Astrodome in '73. This picture is not to be confused with the 1997 made-for-TV production,"When Billie Beat Bobby" (2001), starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver.
Also, there was a little-remembered contest between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova in Las Vegas in 1992 (won by Conners)
Directed — for SOME reason— by two different people, Jonathan Dayton ("Ruby Sparks," but best known for "Little Miss Sunshine") and Valerie Faris ("Ruby Sparks"), with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire"), this retrospective effort is not without it's charm. Steve Carell (Golden Globe winner for the TV series, "The Office" and a nominee for "Foxcatcher") is wonderful as the overtly-positive Riggs, a top tennis player from 30 years ago now relegated to a loveless marriage (to Elizabeth Shue, "Back To the Future 2" and "and a Golden Globe nominee for "Leaving Las Vegas"), appearances at Gambler's Anonymous classes and side bets to help him survive (for instance, he defeats a rich old geyser while walking a bunch of dogs and wins a Rolls-Royce).
The period detail (art direction by Alexander Wei, "25th Hour") and set design (Matthew Flood Ferguson, "The Gift") are also very well done as each department acquits themselves very well.
Most people know what happens here, as Riggs, hitting upon an idea of making a little pocket money, he tries to talk King (Emma Stone," Golden Globe winner for "La La Land") into an exhibition match, but she will not bite. Instead, he takes on Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee, "CHIPs"), the Australian women's champion and defeats her in straight sets.
This then forces King to accept a $100,000 match to be held on national (ABC) television. Meanwhile King has pulled most of the women stars out of the Ladies Lawn Player Association (led by the villainous Jack Kramer, Bill Pullman, "Independence Day: Resurgence") to form the fledgling World Tennis Association (WTA). She also has her lesbian stirrings awakened when a nondescript hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, a bunch of TV series no one has heard of, including "Black Mirror"), becomes her lover and ruins her marriage with Larry King (no relation to the ancient TV talk show host), played by Austin Stowe ("Bridge Of Spies").
Evidently, the directors do not believe we, the audience, realize that King was a homosexual because they film scene after scene after scene of the two making out in various hotel rooms. OK, we GET it; they're GAY. We GET IT!!!
There's no spoiler alert necessary here as everyone King defeated the old man in straight sets, although at the time,my father wondered out loud (like he usually did) if King would have beaten ANY of the current tennis stars of the day (I'd answer that by saying, she wouldn't have).
And while Carell does a very nice job, everyone else seems to be going through the motions, especially Stone, who makes King look light years more beautiful than she was in real life and since I'm not a homosexual, the love scenes between her and Risenborough do not strike me as anything but annoying, while Shue is the epitome of an ice queen and actually leaves Riggs when he brings home the luxury automobile he won. Sarah Silverman (who has kept America on the edges of its seat with her uncalled for opinions of Pres. Donald Trump), as the WTA director Gladys Heldman, is as irritating on screen as she is on "The View."
Another thing that bothered me was the fact not one hit song from 1973 was included in the soundtrack, making me appreciate the music from such films as "American Graffiti," "Invincible" and the "Guardians Of the Galaxy" series. And, despite the large cast, it's the late Howard Cosell who steals the latter part of the film (I suppose they could not find a substitute for his competition commentary).
A worthwhile effort that fall just outside of the baseline.
Grade: C+

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