2 1/2 (out of 4)
Films that attempt to recreate history – as well as reassess it – are always going to stumble out of the gate. Molding real life to the narrative confines of cinema and the expectations of the average moviegoer almost always results in the simplification of the central issues. The significance meant to be immortalized can often be communicated through condescension, where the themes are made very black and white.
Battle of the Sexes already has the clearest of conflicts and most obvious of morality at its core, and the film manages to make the most of a story that doesn’t exactly gel to the formula for either biographical dramas or sports films. The film has a melancholy flavor amidst the brightness and kitschy whimsy of the 1970s, and this helps the husband and wife director duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make an amiable, if far from fantastic, true life account of the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. With only Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks to their name, Battle of the Sexes doesn't find the filmmaking pair maturing so much as finding a piece of history to fit their quirky comedy-drama chops.
Behind the camera, Linus Sandgren (recent Oscar winner for his work on La La Land) balances out the purposely faded color palette with handheld, documentary-like grain and absorbing wide shots that make negative space seem vast and daunting.
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell inhabit their respective sexes rather comfortably, and the script wisely doesn't paint Riggs as a villain. He's given less screen time than that of Stone's committed portrayal, but Carrell's own character feels human despite being a callous, self-declared chauvinist pig. And for once casting and make-up actually has our leads resembling the real-life figures very closely – when photos of the real Riggs and King appear after the film ends, we can appreciate the casting rather than groan at how loosely rendered this fabricated reality really was.
To keep it brief...