The men don’t fare as well. “Battle of the Sexes” is clearly biased in favor of its female contingent, but that’s only a problem because it bothers with Riggs at all. His tedious scenes are slammed into the narrative with all the joy and forcefulness of a second serve, every one of them distracting us from whatever more interesting thing King might be doing at the moment. Most of these bits center on some cartoonish act of misogyny — Riggs proudly boasts that he “puts the show back in chauvinism” — but Dayton and Faris render them toothless because they’re so unwilling to make him into the bad guy. The stakes weren’t supposed to be this high, so Riggs is allowed to retreat to Andy Kaufman territory whenever he threatens to go full Trump (he plays the big match in a branded jacket that’s emblazoned with the words “Sugar Daddy”). Carrell is never once asked to leave his comfort zone.
Yes, there’s a good reason why most of the overt sexism in this film is presented with a smile, King’s game face serving as a constant reminder that disenfranchisement is at its most dangerous when it doesn’t have to look over both shoulders. But “Battle of the Sexes” was designed to be a pat on the back, not a call to action, and so it lets Riggs be a lovable gambling addict with a heart of gold, and not a sociopathic asshole who tried to set women’s lib back 20 years because he didn’t like working an office job for his father-in-law.
Dayton and Faris are happy to wring easy guffaws out of horrifyingly insensitive — but historically accurate — dialogue from sexist commentators (“Men are simply more exciting to watch — it’s biology”), but they’re not often willing to get their hands dirty. The way that a TV personality curls his arm around one of the female players during an on-camera interview is nauseating to the extreme, but such truly unsettling (and uncomfortably real) moments are few and far between. It never hurts to have another movie about the primitive nonsense of the patriarchy, but even “Anchorman” and its cast of cave-dwellers have more perceptive things to say about how men in the ’70s reacted to women’s lib. They also had jokes, an area in which “Battle of the Sexes” whiffs more often than it connects.
This is a film that admires — even awes at — Billie Jean King, but it doesn’t share her commitment to the game. If anything, it has more in common with Riggs than it should, moving with the sluggishness of a player who underestimates their opponent. Despite beautiful production design and a rousing score from “Moonlight” composer Nicholas Britell, “Battle of the Sexes” is shot and structured with the casualness of a rally, not the urgency of a match point. That’s not to say Dayton and Faris suffer from the delusion that a Clinton presidency would have ended sexism forever, or that it would have eliminated prejudice against LGBT athletes (we have a ways to go on both scores), only that “Battle of the Sexes” is a movie about how far we’ve come, and it’s coming out at a time when the world is spinning in reverse.
“Battle of the Sexes” premiered at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. It opens in theaters on September 22.