When it comes to watching professional tennis, I find both men’s and women’s matches to be equally uninteresting. But in the early 1970s, the people in charge of the American professional league thought that men’s tennis was much more interesting than women’s. As such, they decided to offer male players much higher tournament prizes than female players. The women were not so happy about this. Led by top-ranked women’s player Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone), several female players decided to leave the existing league and start a new one, managed by Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Many (including rival league president Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman) predict that it will flop, but the women find a sponsor and an audience and are making a go of it.
Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is a 55-year-old has-been pro with a gambling addiction and a flair for making a spectacle of himself. Spying an opportunity for self-promotion, he challenges King to a match with the intention of proving that men are just plain better than women. She initially rejects his offer, but the other top women’s player, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), accepts the challenge and loses, and Billie Jean feels obligated to take the challenge and put Riggs back in his place. Meanwhile, King finds herself in the awkward position of falling for Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), much to the dismay of her husband Larry (Austin Stowell).
Battle of the Sexes is a serviceable biopic with good acting and a star-studded cast that also includes Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Natalie Morales, Fred Armisen, and others. The problem, though, is that the movie just isn’t very exciting, and this all comes down to predictability, runtime, and uninspired action. Although I’m not all that familiar with the original story, and I have to assume that they remained fairly faithful to it, the movie plays out pretty much exactly as you would expect. It takes two hours to do it, and it seems like it takes forever to get around to Billie Jean actually accepting the challenge. And when we finally get to the tennis, it’s not all that impressive or fast-paced. Maybe that’s because Carell and Stone aren’t actually world-class tennis players, but that’s probably something that could be solved with creative editing and other filmmaking magic. And maybe that’s just because tennis as a spectator sport is akin to watching free kicks in soccer, where it mostly comes down to whether you guess right as to where your opponent will send the ball.
The movie’s other big problem, and something that it didn’t make any attempt to address, is that the match is between a 55-year-old man who is no longer playing professionally and a 29-year-old woman who is considered at least one of the best female players in the world. The fact that it’s not a cakewalk for her to beat someone almost twice her age doesn’t do all that much to bolster the film’s premise, and the inevitable ending is pretty anticlimactic. Combine that with the unenthusiastic and unsatisfying conclusion to Billie Jean’s storyline with Marilyn, and the movie goes out with a whimper rather than the bang that you would expect and that the filmmakers probably hoped for.