“Male chauvinist pig versus hairy-legged feminist”, that’s how former world champion tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) pitches the titular exhibition bout between himself and twelve-time Grand Slam champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) in this disappointingly conceited biographical dramatisation from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.
As with Janus Metz’s plodding Wimbledon drama Borg vs. McEnroe, the action is pivoted around what happened off of the court. From Riggs’ point of view that involves playing up to a bemused press corps by proclaiming that the only place for a woman on the court is collecting the balls, practising his forehand while dressed as Little Bo Peep, and partaking in a bizarre nude photo shoot as he prepares for the forthcoming match: Carell rendering Bobby as an exhaustingly diverting larger-than-life figure.
Mercifully though, the focus of Simon Beaufoy’s script rests predominately with King, perhaps one of the greatest advocates of the female game. But it’s her personal life that affords greater emphasis here; a shared spark of energy between Billie and her hair stylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), early on being the catalyst for an exciting romantic affair that soon jeopardises King’s marriage to her kindly husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). Dayton & Faris invest plenty of pathos in these scenes – the emotionally nuanced complexity of Stone’s performance nicely underpinning the tenderness of her chemistry with Riseborough.
Invariably, many will notice the topical parallels. Tussling with archaic attitudes towards femininity that, to our collective shame, remain so prevalent within society today, Battle of the Sexes confronts a particularly timely socio-political subject. But sadly, this is a film that feels like it has been made by the sort of ignorant liberal idealists who assumed Clinton would win the White House last year because there was just “no way” Trump could become President, and no doubt believe that this fist-pumping, feministic retelling of the Riggs/King clash is ample effort to encourage further change. Yet there’s no drive behind Dayton & Faris’ swing – no power, no passion, and no fury to their direction or storytelling. The current crusade we see sweeping across Hollywood and beyond suggests that we may finally be about to usher in a new era defined by a greater sense of gender equality; the problem with Battle of the Sexes is that it presumes to be a part of that revolution without showing much effort.
Battle of the Sexes is released on Nov. 24th