Battle of the Sexes Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in select theaters.
The titular tennis match in Battle of the Sexes doesn’t take place until the movie is nearly over, but directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) never make it feel like they’re just marking time until the big event. Although it’s slanted toward the perspective of tennis legend Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), Battle is a dual character study of King and her rival Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the self-described “male chauvinist pig” who came up with the publicity stunt of a match between himself (a semi-retired former champion) and King (the top women’s player) in 1973.
King’s story also includes standing up for women’s equality in tennis and a personal coming-out journey (via a tender, tentative romance with a hairdresser played by Andrea Riseborough), so it’s easier to sympathize with her than with the gambling-addicted Riggs and his constant need for attention. But the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy makes both into relatable, well-rounded figures, even if Riggs is clearly on the wrong side of history.
Shot on film with impeccable production design, Battle evokes its time period effectively but not excessively, although some of Beaufoy’s dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose about What It All Means. Stone and Carell give such charismatic performances, often captured in loving close-ups, that it’s hard not to get caught up in the spectacle of it all, even if the outcome was determined 40-plus years ago.