You would think that an event of this magnitude would’ve gotten the theatrical treatment earlier. Well, that’s probably because the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, itself, wasn’t all that major. Sure, at the time it was a big spectacle, but some 40-odd years later, it’s news to most of us stepping into the theater for the first time.
But the Riggs v King match isn’t really the story the filmmakers want to tell you. In fact, it turns out to be sort of a McGuffin. There wasn’t even really a rivalry between Riggs and King. Most would say she was even aware that his “chauvinistic pig” persona was all an act for publicity. Her true beef was with Jack Kramer, the Executive Director of the ATP. And even that gets undermined because of a story that tries to say too much.
The movie starts off being about the struggle for women’s equal pay in the sport of Tennis, and ends up being more about King’s love life. This is all important to understanding who she is as a person, but only furthers the audience from the true importance of what actually happens historically. Barely anything else is said about King and the Original 9–who, in real life, end up establishing the Women’s Tennis Association. It just gets lost in the shuffle of everything else.
The film shows the other side of the scenario, letting us into the personal life of Riggs as well. To the point where we truly feel bad for him. He’s a gambling-addict who has issues in his relationship with his wife and kids. He has money, but he knows he has little else. We empathize with him. Then they flip the script halfway through–when the Battle of the Sexes match actually enters into the story–and make him somewhat of a villain. Like they weren’t sure exactly how they wanted you to feel about him. Or like they realized they were invoking a little too much pity.
The biggest issue is that this film isn’t quite sure what direction it wants to go. It tries covering too much ground at once–almost like a documentary is supposed to do. But this isn’t a documentary. It’s a scripted film, which has limited perspective and takes longer to say less.
The taboo love story between King and another woman overshadows the “rivalry” between King and Riggs–which is what we came for.
Pushing too many agendas almost does itself a disservice. It details much of King’s unfaithfulness to her husband–often times glorifying it. The more we see of King outside of fighting for women’s rights, the more we realize she’s not all that likable.
While watching the match between her and Riggs, part of me wants him to win. Not because he’s a man, but because I don’t care much for King as a person. Riggs has struggles in his life and he’s easy to root for. However, in the end, I know there’s something bigger at stake. Much bigger than preference over who’s a more likable person.
Those who are actually on the opposition of King winning have a case that even someone half paying attention would wonder why it isn’t addressed. King, at the prime of her career, is playing Riggs, who has been formally retired for over 12 years. Is it all that impressive? Wouldn’t it have shut up the opposition even more if she played, say, the current number 1 male player of the time? It’s an easy case to make, and it’s an odd choice for the filmmakers not to acknowledge this argument. At the very least out of curiosity of how it would’ve been responded to.
Many times when too much ground is covered in a film, things get a little sloppy. The audience tends to notice when small details go uncovered or if things seem out of place. The intent may have been to bombard the audience with an abundance of subplots so that they, in fact, don’t notice the little things.
On the upside, both Stone and Carell do a fine job in each of their respective roles. Stone is almost unrecognizable as King, transforming herself perfectly for the character. And Carell conquers the tumultuous, crazy nature of Riggs, making us both like him and annoyed by him. It’s still not quite enough to prevent this film from reaching its full potential.