Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ helplessly routine Battle the Sexes desperately wishes to be consequential, yet it is hopelessly afraid of what that really means. Written by Simon Beaufroy, the film is at once emotionally-vacated sports drama, interpersonal farce, one-man-burlesque that doubles as a commentary on personality as a performance, a semi-interiorized portrait of a woman torn between personal life and public persona, a budding-sexuality tale, and a three-ring circus about male showboating and casual sexism. It touches on nearly everything it can think of, and, when another theme saunters by, it quickly brushes off the necessary pressure it has thus-far built-up, turning each theme not into dramatic leverage but a greatest-hits tour of 1973 culture.
At the center of it all are young tennis superstar and woman-of-the-year Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and aging chauvinist male superstar Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who challenges King to an exhibition match that became the most viewed sports event in history. I’ve also already lied: these two figures aren’t truly the center of anything in the film, nor does it welcome any center in any form. Rather than the two characters offering not only alternative politics but contrapuntally emblazoning the screen with their opposite demeanors – King is reserved, placid, and aware that society is always watching her and Riggs is a showboating tragic fool, also aware that society is always watching him – the film bifurcates itself, trying to tell two (or seven) stories and succeeding at none. King’s relationship with a hair stylist played by Andrea Riseborough, her sexuality a threat to society’s willingness to accept a female tennis player and even for some feminists’ will to legitimize her, is sidelined almost from the beginning. And Riggs’ gambling issues and tensions with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) fare even worse, an unfortunate casualty of the film’s essential confusion about whether Riggs is a psychologically tormented, emasculated tragic clown or a caricatured buffoon of a man. The film is left scrambling, trying to reconcile all these mini-narratives to little end.
Most disappointingly, many of the knottier issues of gender are also conveniently displaced onto King’s tense relationship with former-tennis-player-turned-establishment-crony Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Kramer represents a cruel, numbers-oriented masculinity, a sexism predicated on the intersection of corporate greed and scientific rationalism rather than Riggs’ flippant misogyny. Kramer is the real face of gender-bias in America in 1973 or 2017, or at least, he’s the face behind the face, the more normative but less ostentatious, more insidious but less screen-hogging form of misogyny, the more causal and the more prescient form to tackle. But, for a film, Kramer is more mundane, a stand-in for a more nebulous but more sinister system, and the film thus charts the easier, more superficial path in focusing on King in relation to Riggs’ cartoonish idiocy, itself more closely hewn to the likes of Donald Trump. For this reason – and because he’s a more famous, hot-dogging, audience-baiting figure, the film obviously chooses to emphasize him because his obviously emasculated pathetic-ness is an easier foil to King’s womanly determination. The Trump contingency is what makes Battle of the Sexes relevant in 2017, but because Trump himself is a convenient cover-up for the more everyday, more quotidian forms of liberal and conservative gendering in society, it is also why Battle of the Sexes is so defanged and depleted when it comes to genuinely exploring the issues of the day.
At some point, the film collapses in on itself, the burden of its many themes shattering the film’s flow and turning it into a chintzy, arbitrary montage-of-montages, diminishing its themes to a collection of undernourished images that lack the free-wheeling charisma these montages were obviously intended to generate. Honestly though, these sequences – because they are so malnourished – are the most interesting in the film, almost a meta-textual reflection on how empty the film’s achievements truly are. When King wins – not a spoiler, since, you know, it happened – the feeling is not one of tectonic triumph but empty-handed banality, as though King is finally aware that even in success she has been subjected to the very corporate circus that Riggs’ combustible lunacy turned into fossil fuel for his external persona. With King, we get the sense that she’d rather lead a quiet, intimate life. But rather than a more radical claim that even society’s socially-sanctioned battlefields of sexism are inapt for truly foregrounding female humanity and personality, the film mostly relegates this realization to a quasi-epilogue. Only here do we sense the film self-aware about how superficial it all is.
Ultimately then, Battle of the Sexes is unable to explore any sense of gender exceptionalism. It unduly implies that this “victory” is more for the nation than for King personally. Sure, her own success carries the heaviness of the nation on its back, but it’s difficult to actually make the case that she achieves any sort of equality for women, especially because the film’s chosen field of combat – tennis, a sport – defines sexual progress as a battle for supremacy in popular fields, or rather, fields that have been and are possibly inherently masculinized. Only King’s physical virility is championed, implicitly conditioning her worth on her strength, speed, and dexterity rather than, say, her mind or her humanity. It routinely conflates feminism with achievement rather than offering a conflicted, densely-interiorized view of King as a person. Why? Ask yourself which of the two will relish box office glory, and then ask yourself what that says about how far we’ve come, and whether Battle of the Sexes earns its political clout.