Battle Of The Sexes: Evening the playing field

Billie Jean King’s infamous tennis match with aging trash talker Bobby Riggs takes a back seat to private, personal moments in the new biopic “Battle of the Sexes.”

While the film makes its mark with the 1973 King/Riggs showdown at the Houston Astrodome, viewers rarely see the two on screen together as directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris meander through King’s love life and Riggs’ incessant gambling and showmanship.

There’s a number of excellent performances including Academy Award winner Emma Stone as King and Academy Award nominee Steve Carell as Riggs. But the scenes are so disjointed and uneven that “Battle of the Sexes” misses the mark as a feature film.

It’s clear that Dayton and Faris want to be as complete and thorough as possible, but in doing so, no one aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” succeeds.

It seems inevitable that Stone will earn another Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of King, which is nearly on par with her Oscar winning turn in “La La Land” and has the real King’s seal of approval. Stone does a wonderful job of bringing audiences into King’s conflicted mind with a single look and she displays remarkable chemistry with her “Birdman” co-star Andrea Riseborough as King’s hairdresser and mistress Marilyn.

Love takes center stage throughout “Battle of the Sexes,” especially in Stone’s storyline as King seeks to balance her love for her husband Larry and emerging infatuation with Marilyn against her obsession with tennis.

An additional subplot that squares King off against the male-dominated U.S. Lawn Tennis Association gives Stone plenty of meaty moments to shine in and will make her Oscar highlight reel difficult to wean down.

By comparison, Carell’s slimy, arrogant and broad turn as self-described “male chauvinist” Riggs feels secondary, as if Dayton and Faris decided to make the Riggs storyline an occasional afterthought for comedic relief against the more dramatic fodder.

Regardless of how it’s used in the film, Carell barrels his way through scenes with brash aplomb with a performance that evokes his Golden Globe nominated work in “The Big Short.”

“Battle of the Sexes” also boasts an outstanding, though underutilized supporting cast including comedienne Sarah Silverman as King’s business manager, Austin Stowell as King’s almost too understanding husband and Alan Cumming as King’s stylist representing the plight of closeted LGBTQ individuals during the era.

Of note among the supporting players is Bill Pullman’s all too convincing work as U.S. Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer, a part Pullman melts into as he delivers frank, misogynistic diatribes with ease.

Technically the film is masterfully shot by Linus Sandgren, who comes off Oscar winning work on “La La Land” to deliver a rich, deep tone to “Battle of the Sexes” that simultaneously highlights period color palettes and contemporary camera work.

It’s a film that feels made in the 1970s in almost documentary style where there’s a coarse grit to each frame that makes “Battle of the Sexes” appear as a series of pictures shot in succession during 1973.

“Battle of the Sexes” will probably be in awards conversation this fall thanks in large part to strong support from the film’s subject and its inclusive message.

Among the potential nominees, Stone has the best chance to win an Academy Award, though a Best Picture nomination isn’t out of the question and a win could result under the right set of circumstances.

Carell likely will miss out on accolades for his work as Riggs, though it could be lumped into the minds of voters when they consider his turn in Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” due in November.

Strong turns by Stone and Carell make “Battle of the Sexes” a solid, yet flawed biopic that does justice to its subject matter without rising to an elite level.

Moviegoers interested in watching as many award contenders as possible should find a way to catch “Battle of the Sexes,” though rushing to the theater might not be necessary.

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