'Battle of the Sexes' Review

Woke cinema at its lamest

October 6, 2017

Stumbling out of a midday screening of Battle of the Sexes earlier this week, one simple thought kept running through my head: "How did anyone take this movie seriously?"

Shot with all the verve of an after-school special, hammering on its various points about women's equality and gay rights with all the subtlety of a carpenter banging nails, the certified-fresh Battle of the Sexes feels more like a parody of an empowerment movie than the real deal.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) wants equal pay for male and female tennis players, and to get it she's willing to start her own circuit. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) just wants something to do: retired from the tour and working in an office job for the father of his wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), Bobby's bored, hustling rich goobers on the tennis court while trying to hide the winnings from his wife.

As King is building her circuit with the help of manager Gladys (Sarah Silverman) and younger players like Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), she's also discovering her lesbianism, stepping out on her husband with a hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Unfortunately, society is Just Too Straitlaced, Man to deal with their forbidden love, so they keep it hidden with the help of a pair of gay dressmakers (one of whom is played by Alan Cumming)—caricatures who are mincing one-note stereotypes at best, figments that would be denounced as deeply problematic were this movie's politics not in the right place.

Riggs, meanwhile, sees all the attention that this lady's tour is whipping up and figures out how to get the notoriety—and the money—he's been seeking: a battle of the sexes! Man vs. woman, misogynist vs. feminist, lobber vs. libber, you get the idea. King turns him down but Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) accepts and is promptly blown off the court, 2 and 1. Now, to defend her sex's honor—and to really stick it to Court, who in this movie is seen as an anti-gay bigot, a sort of stand-in for the Christian right who couldn't handle lady-lovin'—King has to take Riggs on. And take him down.

This movie's treatment of Court—a far greater player than King who won twice as many majors yet is treated as an athletic afterthought for the purposes of this treacle—is particularly grotesque. But it's far from Battle of the Sexes' biggest sin. That would be a sin of omission, the decision to completely ignore the entirely credible reports that Riggs threw the match at the behest of the mob in order to pay off his sizable gambling debts.

Including this wrinkle would've given some real heft to Riggs' onscreen laments about the nature of gambling addiction. As he tells a crew of sad sacks in a Gambler's Anonymous meeting, the problem isn't that they're addicted to gambling, it's that they've failed to find the edge that would make them successful gamblers. There's something deeply sad about the man's onscreen mania, his compulsion to wager—something deeply human. But exploring this aspect of Riggs would necessarily devalue the "triumph" of King's victory. Instead, he's treated as a cartoon.

I'm not one to insist upon utter fidelity to the truth, even when a film claims to be "based on a true story." That American Made is largely anti-Reagan bullshit—a fact ably demonstrated by Kyle Smith in his review—is interesting but, from my point of view, largely irrelevant to the film's merits as a film. Indeed, the bullshittier aspects of that movie heighten the drama and make it more interesting and more entertaining.

But leaving facts out that would make both your characters and your movie far more compelling is cinematic malpractice. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie that went out of its way to avoid a mention of the mob.

But hey, I guess it doesn't matter, because Battle of the Sexes isn't a movie designed to entertain. (Mission accomplished on that score.) It's a movie designed to preach. And anything that gets in the way of the pastor's homily has to go.

Published under: Movie Reviews