“Battle of the Sexes” is a movie that was made by people who were convinced Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States (not that anyone can blame them for that). A broad and sporadically entertaining crowd-pleaser that follows tennis champions Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs as they wend their way towards the 1973 exhibition match that cemented their legacies, this isn’t a movie made by people who merely thought that Clinton was going to win, it’s a movie made by people who knew. People who knew like the rest of us knew.
Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the script before the primaries began, obviously couldn’t have predicted that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, but good writers have a way of intuiting these things (and grappling with their implications) long before they come to pass. By the time production began in April 2016, it was practically a done deal. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Ruby Sparks”) weren’t making a film about breaking the glass ceiling, they were telling a story about sweeping up the shards and looking forward to the next fight. The last scene lingers on a shot of someone holding a “Billie Jean for President” sign, and the moment is clearly meant to be an exclamation point, not an S.O.S..
Of course, that won’t be the first time that the audience makes the topical connection. From the very beginning, “Battle for the Sexes” so explicitly parallels the 2016 election that you half expect the Russians to hack King’s serve. Riggs is obviously your Trump figure, and Steve Carrell plays him like a perfect combination of John du Pont and Brick Tamland. A 55-year-old former Wimbledon champion with a severe gambling addiction and a fed-up wife (Elisabeth Shue, always welcome), Riggs has newly recommitted his life to becoming a professional troll. His big idea: Challenge the best female tennis players in the world and become the king of the ladies’ tour.
It’s hard to say why he’s so into this scheme, but he loves attention and he loves rolling the dice. Also, he’s bored, and his coterie of cigar-chomping buddies all seem to pursue chauvinism for sport. As if that didn’t make things obvious enough, Riggs has even got the two Large Adult Sons, a Huey and Dewey situation who sit on the sidelines and breathe through their mouths.
And then you’ve got the great Billie Jean King. Played with shy steeliness by a warm and immediately believable Emma Stone, King is the best female tennis player in the world (the first to net an $100,000 purse), and she’s straight pissed that the women in the sport are paid a fraction of what the men get despite drawing similar crowds.
She and her manager (Sarah Silverman) make an impromptu declaration to get back at the men by starting their own women’s tour. The script doesn’t do a lot with that premise, but Dayton and Faris use the underdeveloped endeavor as a framework on which to hang the rest of their story, and also as an opportunity to support King with a sisterhood of characters who are played by great young actresses like Bridey Elliott and Natalie Morales.
The tour is how the film succinctly pitches the sexes against one another (e.g. the match-cut between Riggs and King staring into separate mirrors, he in a locker room and she at a hair salon). The tour is how King meets stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), a free-spirited woman who wears perfume on her wrists and lingers on Billie Jean’s bangs long enough for the athlete to get drunk on the scent. It isn’t long before Marilyn breaks Billie at love, and it isn’t long before the tennis star’s husband (Austin Stowell, a real Jake Lacy type), has effectively been demoted to working as her manager.
These scenes don’t have much in the way of forward momentum, but Stone and Risenborough make them sing all the same. Billie is desperately trying to keep her eye on the ball as she comes into contact with a dormant part of herself, struggling not to make unforced errors as her private and public lives pull in very different directions. As for Marilyn, we never get much of a sense of who she is or what she’s all about (and her character arc is irrevocably butchered in the second act), but there’s a quiet grace to the patience she displays for her new crush.