With the arrival of this summer’s “Wonder Woman” by director Patty Jenkins — arguably the best superhero film in years — empowering, female-led narratives have occasionally absorbed the spotlight of mainstream American cinema this past year. There is still much work to be done, but directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s “Battle of the Sexes” represents another step in the right direction. This film will hopefully become a hit of a similar caliber. “Battle of the Sexes” brings a progressive narrative into another one of the flimsiest but most easily inspirational of film genres: the sports picture.
In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is the best tennis player in the world. A champion of women’s rights and a consummate professional on the court, she negotiates with head of the tennis league Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) for equal pay in an upcoming tournament. When he refuses, she sets off with her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) and a motley crew of other players to form a women’s league. King, a closeted lesbian, also begins an on-the-road love affair with team hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), which is complicated by the arrival of King’s husband, Larry (Austin Stowell).
At the same time, former title holder Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) squanders in his past fame and present mediocrity. A well-known serial hustler, Riggs is a self-professed “male chauvinist pig,” making a performative circus out of his public antics and degrading comments. His wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) supports him with her family’s money, eventually kicking him out when he can’t control his gambling addiction. But Riggs sees an opportunity in King. He challenges her to a match — man versus woman, a tournament of the zeitgeist — and she accepts.
Faris and Dayton conjure a witch’s brew of formal delights in the film, particularly regarding the 1970s period detail. A scene in a nightclub echoes Radley Metzger’s hallucinatory, candy-colored softcore films (“Score,” “The Lickerish Quartet”), while characters’ emotional distance through the framing of rooms parallels the melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”). That addictive aestheticizing can temporarily dip into the territory of pastiche, however, as the directors have moments where there is no meaning behind it other than to harken back to the 1970s.
All members of the ensemble, even the smaller supporting roles, including Alan Cumming as a costume designer and Fred Armisen as a pharmaceutical representative, are given their moments to shine. Stone’s and Carell’s performances as King and Riggs are some of their best work to date, while Riseborough and Silverman both excel as Barnett and Heldman. Comprised of several recent Oscar nominees and winners, the crew is also a murderer’s row of craftspeople, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and his appropriately grainy cinematography. Pamela Martin’s editing is the glue holding the film together, whether it’s expanding on emotional distances through stunning match cuts or bringing the titular tennis match to riveting life. “Moonlight” alumnus Nicholas Britell also turns in another gorgeous score — without it, the film wouldn’t register the pulse it does.
It can’t be overstated how refreshingly enjoyable “Battle of the Sexes” is, accepting its status not as Oscar bait but as true entertainment. It’s a gripping true story to begin with, sprinkling on dashes of genre tropes for added flair and a saggy middle act, but the relationships are some of the most fascinating bits. The love triangle between King, her husband and Barnett is, perhaps, the most interesting part of the film, twisting notions of gender and sexuality from the period and our own. The same can’t be said of Riggs and his family dynamic, which appears undercooked by comparison. Though, in this scenario, the larger-than-life aspects of each character arguably work towards cementing the film’s thematic focus on equal rights within the realm of popular culture (for example, wage gaps are a recognizable topic). In a sense, the film is akin to having your dessert and vegetables, too.
With feminist commentary woven into it, “Battle of the Sexes” can’t help but be topical — even if it can come across as naively hopeful in its winning tone. After all, a man as openly, cartoonishly sexist as Riggs himself was elected to our nation’s highest office not even a year ago, beating what would have been the first woman to hold it and leaving American culture in a paranoid state. Reminders of the small victories of history can be immensely useful in the darkest moments of the here and now, as a challenge that we have won before and can win again, even when all seems to be lost. That’s what makes the film such a potent blast of pop art.