I don’t know that I expected to like Battle of the Sexes more than I did, but I certainly hoped I would. It is okay, but I thought maybe it could be really good. Battle of the Sexes is about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, but it is also about Billie Jean’s personal life, the founding of what would become the WTA and a little about Bobby Riggs. These are all worthwhile stories, but the movie spreads itself a little thin trying to tell all of them and ends up not really telling them all that well.
The Bobby Riggs part of the movie is pretty stunted. Steve Carell does a great job, playing a fading gambling addict who is just trying to maintain some relevance in a world that is leaving him behind. There is something irrepressibly comical about him, both when he is being disgustingly sexist and when he is playing games in the living room with his son. While he is a player in this story, this movie is not his story and it probably shouldn’t be. But the movie gives just enough of a look into him to leave you wanting more, in a bad way. After that scene of him playing with his son, we don’t see that son again. We do meet another, older son who gets a little bit of a story, but he never really amounts to anything as a character.
The movie opens with Billie Jean and Gladys Heldman arranging a boycott of a tennis tournament that pays the male winners 12 times what the female winners get. They, along with a handful of other women player’s, start what in a few years would become the WTA. That in itself is likely enough to sustain a movie, but it just sort of happens over the first twenty minutes or so of this movie. It opens a lot of interesting avenues and leaves them completely unexplored.
The main thrust of the movie, before the central tennis match actually starts to happen, is Billie Jean’s unexpected romance with her hairdresser. It is very unexpected because she is happily married. That gets the bulk of the movie’s time and is a story worth telling. But unless I am misreading, it is also the subplot that is least on theme. Her husband is possibly the only male figure in this movie that isn’t awful. He is supportive of King and his interactions with Marilyn, her lover, are more about warning her off to prevent her from disrupting King’s focus, noting that for their mutual love tennis comes first. It other than giving King something else to worry about, it doesn’t really play into the match from which this movie gets its name.
Battle of the Sexes is definitely worth seeing. Emma Stone is excellent as King and Carell is good as Riggs. The movie is just overwhelmingly pleasant. It is fun to watch, even as the issues it deals with remain issues 40 years later. But this movie feels a little like a missed opportunity, like it was close to being just a little bit better and truly memorable.