Battle of the Sexes Review – American independents

Look at how they start that tagline

I’ve been saying a lot recently that the past few months have been a context killer for movies, but then that’s always a more extreme version of what I been saying ever since Donny got elected. All of a sudden our good intentions count for nothing because they’re being projected into a reality where they ain’t good enough no more. I’m sure that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are good people, and they made a film which comes down on the right side, but it is so bland and inoffensive as to be literally nothing.

Like they got acclaim in 2006 for tying up the loose ends frayed ends of projects like Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State, bad films that were grasping at something new, into something that was finally a working movie. Little Miss Sunshine, for better and worse, solidified the Fox Searchlight, American indie aesthetic for a new generation, one defined by the word enough.

Don’t got a firm grip on the heart of you movie? Just make sure it is funny enough, and dramatic enough, and tragic enough, and romantic enough, and pretty enough, and bittersweet enough, and joyful enough, and so on, and so on. It’s a one stop handbook for filmmaking and over the past ten years any young filmmaker struggling to realise their vision has been able to take the easy way out. Some of these films have been better, some have been worse, but you don’t walk out awed. You walk out having gotten enough.

Ten years could have been enough time for the pair to improve as storytellers, if they have it isn’t visible in Battle of the Sexes. With a script by Simon Beaufoy they create a film which feels all too familiar as we walk through the story of Billie Jean King, founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, and her well publicised 1973 exhibition match against the former male champion Bobby Riggs.

I'm all in on the glasses

It’s amazing how misguided you can be while making something. You’d have thought that a film about a lesbian, feminist hero might be less concerned with her husband, or the self-proclaimed ‘chauvinist pig’ challenging her. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the performances of Austin Stowell or Steve Carell in these roles, they manage, Carell obviously is fun to watch in his more clowny moments. We just don’t care about these dudes.

But, you see, without them the film breaks the law of the structure. Without the husband’s presence we lack for drama, because God the screenplay don’t manage to drain any out of the upcoming match, the conclusion pretty much inevitable from the moment you walk in. Without the strained romance between Riggs and his wife (Elisabeth Shue) we be lacking for the tragedy.

Another misstep. Bobby Riggs don’t gotta be a tragic character. The film takes eloquent pains to depict his failing marriage, his financial woes, his gambling addiction. Whereas, his character noticing the opportunity to capitalise from the misogyny of the sporting world is completely skated over. Oh, we get pains about how the man don’t really believe these things, about how he is troubled by the attitudes his behaviour is feeding into. Emma Stone is gifted a clumsy monologue indicting the truly bad men, the ones who actually believe these things.

I'm not sure taste was a thing back then

Is y’all sure? Maybe this a film that shouldn’t have been written by a dude. I’m doubting that any woman would have reached the same conclusion and as a result that whole thing just flops. Same with the inevitably disappointing way the screenplay handwaves away her sexuality the moment it become inconvenient, this time it’s giving Alan Cummings the monologue about how progress takes time and we’ll get there eventually and forget your gf the films too complicated with her around. Ain’t no queer person ever writing that.

Look too at who the film chooses to make its bad guys. The misogynist head of the Lawn Tennis Association is an easy one. Then we get this bizarre portrayal of fellow women’s champion player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) who lost an earlier exhibition match against Riggs. The film’s insistence that her failure in that moment defines her, that her loss must be a result of her poor character.

How gross, Little Miss Sunshine, for all its faults, was all about the heroism of losers, here the circumstances of your loss makes you the villain and they’re gonna work backwards from that moment to make sure you end up that way. The film’s conclusion, her performance of femininity is her weakness. She’s the only woman who travels with her husband on tour, the only mother. She is punished for this, because the only way to celebrate Billie Jean King’s femininity is to denigrate hers.

She was in Death of Stalin too, unrecognisable

Oh and the husband, the poor noble husband, watching stoically as he loses his wife to her sexuality, who doesn’t get to do anything interesting that could possibly upset the film’s balance. He’s actually gets more time onscreen than Andrea Riseborough as the girlfriend. I’m practically ready to accuse the whole advertising campaign as being positively queer-baity. There isn’t enough interesting going on for it to play as a functional drama, and we don’t get enough time or resolution for it to be a functional romance.

The important thing I suppose was that there was enough of each. I dislike this style of filmmaking so much. Everything is just being reduced to this bland medium, there is no point in this film where I was shocked, or unnerved, or outraged. All that its combined efforts served to do was cover up the one thing that makes the film worth seeing: Emma Stone’s tender and thoughtful performance of this extraordinary woman. Why couldn’t we just have had that?

Battle of the Sexes is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Beautiful looking, such a waste
Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight, photo credit Melinda Sue Gordon

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