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Non-Review Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a well-produced and well-performed feel-good historical drama, one elevated by a strong sense of timeliness.

Battle of the Sexes is structurally a classic “historical buddy film”, a subgenre of the biopic that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The idea is to take a big historical event involving two important and opposed figures, and to build a narrative about that singular event following both characters on their collision course. Ron Howard is something of an expert with this particular biographical subgenre, having directed both Frost/Nixon and Rush, two very fine examples of the form.

Riggsed game.

Of course, there are plenty of films that still adopt the classic biopic format of documenting an extended portion of a single life. Recent films like The Founder or American Made come to mind, very traditional sweeping narratives that tended to pop up in awards nominations during the eighties and nineties. However, there is something to be said for the format of a tightly-focused two-hander, of a narrative built around two adversarial forces locked in some existential combat. It might look like sport, but it is always something more serious.

Battle of the Sexes is built around the historic tennis match played between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs, but it is obviously about more than just a tennis match between a man and a woman. It evolves into a story about the symbolic weight of this match, of the culture that warps around it, of the dogma that it threatens to reinforce. Battle of the Sexes resonates surprisingly clearly, even more than thirty three years removed from its original context.

Causing quite a racket.

There is an endearing lightness to Battle of the Sexes. A lot of this comes down to directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, perhaps best known for their work on Little Miss Sunshine. The pair keep the story moving across its two-hour runtime, never getting too bogged down in the particulars or the subtext. Battle of the Sexes often plays as an absurd farce about a woman who finds herself placed in an impossible situation playing opposite a fifty-five-year-old “clown” who seems to travel with his own “circus.”

Battle of the Sexes is often surprisingly low key. Dayton and Faris shoot a lot of the film with handheld cameras, allowing the frame to wobble as it focuses on particular performers or events. This approach allows Battle of the Sexes to feel like something of a docudrama. This effect is heightened by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who shot the film on 35mm and used several lenses from the period to create a convincing facsimile. This sense of sense of texture subtly permeates the film, from the opening “Fox Searchlight” logo through to the choice of locations and altered footage.

Courting the public.

The most striking thing about all of this attention to detail is how casual it seems in the hands of Dayton and Faris. Dayton and Faris trust their production and their cast implicitly. Battle of the Sexes is never especially dynamic, even during its climactic tennis sequences. Instead, Battle of the Sexes allows its characters and its performers room to breath. There is never any sense that the film is rushing its characters, but there is also never a sense that any of the cast would allow their scenes to drag.

This lightness carries over to the casting. Battle of the Sexes benefits from a finely-tuned and perfectly-calibrated ensemble. Much of this is down to the clever casting of comedic performers in small supporting roles. Billie Jean’s ensemble seems to be compromised primarily of strong comedic character actors; Sarah Silverman is the quick-witted manager Gladys Heldman, while Alan Cumming and Wallace Langham are a pair of canny stylists.

Managing just fine.

Battle of the Sexes owes a lot of its charm to the casting of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. A lot of the movie’s tone is determined by how it approaches Riggs. After all, it is Riggs who chooses to market this “battle of the sexes” and who chooses to pitch himself as “a male chauvinist pig” playing against “a hairy-legged feminist” in a match described as “the lobber versus the libber.” Riggs poses a fundamental challenge to any attempt to adapt this story for the screen.

The characterisation of Bobby Riggs dances on the edge of a razor. If Bobby Riggs is too likable and too goofy, then Battle of the Sexes runs the risk of trivialising its central point. At the same time, if Bobby Riggs is too monstrous and too horrendous, then the movie becomes a lot weightier and heavier than Dayton and Faris would like. Carell is cast incredibly effectively, managing to develop a character who is at once both charming and pathetic, endearing and infuriating, sympathetic and deplorable. It is a very fine balance to strike, and Carell does it well.

At least one of these characters can say, “Billie Jean is not my lover.”

After all, Battle of the Sexes exists in a strange cultural context. The movie cannot escape the reality of its release in 2017, less than a year after a buffoonish and sexist oaf defeated a highly qualified woman in another high-stakes conflict. Battle of the Sexes was announced while the presidential primaries were still being waged, but is released in an entirely different world. Nobody working on Battle of the Sexes could possibly have imagined the prism through which audiences and critics would approach the movie.

With that in mind, Battle of the Sexes feels like a very canny piece of work. The film focuses on the lives of both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, exploring both characters in considerable depth. While the movie never shies away from the cynicism and the narcissism of Bobby King, it resists the urge to turn him into a monster. There is even a faint recurring sense that Billie Jean King holds some small affection (or at least understanding) of Bobby Riggs.

Dial it up a notch.

As far as Billie Jean King is concerned, Bobby Riggs is a circus sideshow, one motivated primarily by his own thirst for glory. However, he has cynically unleashed something truly horrific, and is perfectly willing to cash-in on the worst impulses of the public at large. Bobby Riggs is transparently motivated by his own desire for fame and fortune, willing to market himself as a cultural warrior in order to sate his appetite. However, there is something much more cynical lurking beneath that seemingly absurd exterior.

In its best moments, Battle of the Sexes seems to prefigure the reflexive post-ironic uncertainties of the modern culture wars. A lot of modern misogyny and racism veils itself in playful irony and mocking revelry, insisting that it is all an attempt to mockingly transgress social norms in “good fun.” As such, anybody who challenges these jokes is labelled a killjoy or a coward or a bad sport. Battle of the Sexes explores what it means to compete in that context, to understand that there is something bubbling away beneath the goofy jokes and the toothy grins.

King of the hill.

Battle of the Sexes is fundamentally the story about something that began as a crude joke, but very quickly escalated (or sunk) into something much more profound. It is a film that touches on the painful subtext of every joke about women athletes, or every insistence that “boys will be boys”, or every justification that men should be allowed to behave like animals in their own spaces without anybody spoiling their fun.  All of this is told through the perspective of Billie Jean King, portrayed with earnestness and vulnerability by Emma Stone.

There is a sense that Battle of the Sexes is just a little bit too smooth in places, that its edges have all been sanded down. Battle of the Sexes is a movie that never feels particularly angry or appalled at the carnival unfolding around its protagonists, instead seeming more resigned and morose. This is a film that understands that while victories and progress are important, they are not a destination of themselves; there is always another match to be won, always another battle to be fought.

It’s good to be the King.

“Remember you have a tournament the day after the match,” Gladys warns Billie Jean at one point in the film, a reminder that most victories are fleeting and that there is always something more to be done. Battle of the Sexes does not trumpet its narrative as a singular defining moment in the history of feminism, instead treating these events as a single step forward on a long road ahead. However, this understated approach (coupled with the sincerity of Stone’s central performance) lends Battle of the Sexes a profound dignity.

Battle of the Sexes focuses on a minor skirmish, but never loses any sense of the larger wars unfolding beyond the confines of this particular confrontation.

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