What’s missing from Battle of the Sexes is the lively exuberance that we see in the promotional picture of Emma Stone as Billie Jean King jumping three feet off the ground with her tennis racket ready to whack that ball to victory over Bobby Riggs in a match played in 1973. Instead, we get the Billie Jean who’s tongue-tied by the attention of a hairdresser who comes on to her by telling her how pretty she is, capturing her heart as well as her libido at an inconvenient time when she was married to a man and when being openly gay would eventually cost her dearly in the cancellation of her endorsements.
Hindered further by oppressive background music that sounds as it was scored in the fifties, the movie never finds its pace and hangs precariously between a biopic of a great female athlete and that of a moonstruck lesbian uncertain of how to live her life. Complicating this dilemma for the viewer is the fact that Billie Jean’s husband Larry looks more gay than she is and has none of the predictable reactions of a husband finding another woman’s bra in his wife’s hotel room. We never witness a scene in which he gets to air his devastation at her betrayal of their marriage, leaving us with a lingering question of whether she was mainly his meal-ticket or someone he loved passionately who broke his heart.
Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with the requisite clownishness that viewers of a certain age will remember but not enough of the charm that would occasion a wealthy heiress to marry him twice. Nor do we understand why his adult son who has acted as his manager in staging the battle of the sexes decides to stay away from the match. Sarah Silverman turns in a stereotypical performance as a Jewish manager as played by Rosalind Russell auditioning for Auntie Mame. For reasons beyond my comprehension, this movie starring two box-office favorite was directed by two people whose names are unfamiliar to me and probably to most readers - Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Their heavy hands are all too obvious in a production that is leaden and missing both the carnival quality of that famous match or the gravitas of Billie Jean changing the world of professional tennis and being the harbinger of a rapidly changing acceptance of gay behavior and rights. I saw this film in an appropriate setting where the woman in front of me had her phone lit up throughout and two senior couples on either side of me had simultaneous explanation of the action and missed dialogue to each other. I was annoyed at first but quickly realized that it hardly mattered.
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