In “Battle of the Sexes” the cast is likable enough, and the event the film positions itself around engaging enough, that the film always trucks along entertainingly enough…but the cast is good enough, and the real events the film bases itself on interesting enough, that it more often than not feels like a tantalising glimpse into a more interesting film it never amounts to.
Adapting real events into a film always has some manner of sociopolitical relevance, intended or not, but the extent to which the film trades in its period’s culture war for the current one reduces what could have been a more expansive and nuanced take into a time into a ra-ra hurrah not just aimed squarely at today but steeped in it as well. The film features sexual awakenings, changing relationships to sexuality and ageing and athleticism, media landscapes shifting, but trades in most of that for repetitive dialogue and continued drum-beating.
Carell and Stone make it work, but more interesting layers to their “characters” (King’s actions later in life, rumours around Riggs’ motivations behind the titular match) aren’t touched, and even the interesting shades of the film (Riggs’ “benevolent” faux-sexism contrasted to genuine prejudice from other character) just get randomly referenced towards the end like the film already had done something interesting with them. When it…hadn’t.
Still, some of the film’s restraint is good. It doesn’t go the easy route with Riggs – it’s not just Carell’s performance that makes clear he isn’t the “bad guy” in this narrative. An entertaining enough effort, but the cast deserves better. Two and a half tennis balls, and an orange windbreaker.