Has it really been eleven years since we were graced by the utterly dysfunctional Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine? Since then, indie filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have only done Ruby Sparks, which didn’t nearly live up to the hilarious heights of their Oscar-nominated 2006 film.
So it’s curious that the two would tackle not only a tumultuous time in American history, but also two gigantic characters—one known for her icon, and the other for his ego—that surely would’ve benefited from having their own respective movies.
Battle of the Sexes, just doesn’t really know what it wants to be. On one hand you have Billie Jean King (played admirably by Emma Stone) who, in response to rising sexism and the even greater rise of the women’s movement, starts her own tournament just for women. She also has to cope with an alluring love affair with her hairdresser, being a role model for women everywhere, and a faithful companion to her husband.
But then there’s also former tennis champion Bobby Riggs (a gleefully chauvinistic Steve Carrell) who is struggling with gambling addiction, his failing marriage, and the sense that his life now means nothing after the spotlight stopped shining.
The “Battle” in question is the fated tennis match that Riggs goads King into in 1973 to prove the “dominant sex,” which is just silly by all means, but it serves as a reminder for the unrelenting sexism that existed then and how much of it still exists today. Surprisingly, it isn’t even mentioned until halfway through the film which severely decreases the anticipation.
Supporting characters don’t have any more than a few lines; Sarah Silverman and Natalie Morales feel like afterthoughts, while Bill Pullman plays a great asshole and the talents of Alan Cumming and Fred Armisen are completely underutilized. King’s secret romance with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) is actually the most interesting subplot and probably should’ve occupied more of the screen time.
When you have to juggle all of these characters, especially two that are larger than life, everything gets lost in the mix. I’m not saying the movie is bad. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining. There are some humorous moments, though they’re nowhere near the gut-busting laughs the directing duo has produced before. And there’s a solid amount of heart to in watching determination and fortitude of these women who endured awful, awful things at the behest of men who thought they were superior beings.
Stone and Carrell help elevate an otherwise wonky script that highlights a crucial time in history for women’s equality. Though there is a lot left to be desired, mainly just more information on the two leading figures, Battle of the Sexes is a perfectly fine film that won’t leave you disappointed.