Review | "Battle of the Sexes" (2017)

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in the film BATTLE OF THE SEXES. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.
© 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' Battle of the Sexes isn't so much the casual sexism on display in 1973, but the fact that we really made that much progress since. Sure, you don't see many men (outside the FOX News Channel...and maybe the current White House) going on TV and explaining how men are superior to women and that they need to stay in the kitchen, all with a condescending refrain of "little lady." But it's still there, people just know better than to express those feelings out loud most of the time. It's comical in the context of the film, but there's an underlying sense of anger that percolates under neath Battle of the Sexes, you can almost hear Dayton and Faris saying "you laugh...but we're still dealing with this crap 40 years later."

The film centers around the now legendary tennis match between former men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and the #1 women's player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), which became a flashpoint in the women's rights movement. King was fighting for the respect of her male colleagues, while Riggs was fighting to prove that men were superior to women. It is that dichotomy that gets right to the heart of issue at hand - when one side is fighting for equality while the other side is fighting for superiority, then the playing field is far from equal.

It's hard to be mad at Riggs for all this. While Carell plays him as an affable goofball, the self-described "male chauvinist pig" was more of a hustler than anything else, a larger than life showman who was in it more for the money than anything else. Yet the way the men around him turn the match into a chance to prove once and for all that women players do not deserve equal pay or respect makes the stakes much higher for King, who is also struggling with her own sexuality, discovering budding feelings for her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their relationship is the tender heart of Battle of the Sexes, but it is King's drive and passion for proving the mettle of women everywhere that keeps the film moving, buoyed by Stone's spirited and deeply moving performance.

We all know how this turns out. Knowing that the outcome is pre-ordained, Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) choose instead to focus on how King got there rather than the destination itself. The moment of final victory is also somewhat underplayed, as the filmmakers focus on its impact on King herself, spending the final minutes of the film with King alone in her locker room. That they choose to go small when they could have gone over-the-top is admirable. While the film occasionally overplays its emotional hand (the final line by Alan Cumming feels a bit too on-the-nose), its tendency to focus on its characters and their own personal journeys, rather than how their actions affected the nation at large, makes it all the more touching. The lovely score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) is also a huge asset in that regard, never overstepping but always supporting the underlying emotion with subtle dignity. King's struggle becomes a microcosm of the female struggle for equality, and it's wrapped in the guise of a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that now feels all too immediate in Trump's America. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, we'd probably be looking at this film in a much different light. It wouldn't have ended sexism, obviously, but watching Battle of the Sexes in 2017 is as much a heartbreaking experience as it is a funny one. That it strikes that balance so well and so gracefully is a beautiful thing indeed.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BATTLE OF THE SEXES | Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris | Stars Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elizabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen | Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and partial nudity | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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