Dayton and Faris, working with a script from Simon Beaufoy, frame the public volleys of the titular match against their Riggs’ and King’s roiling private lives. King is just beginning to indulge her homosexuality, having met stylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) during a sensual and intimate haircut that Dayton and Faris film in flirtatious close-up. Marilyn comes along on the tour and the two develop a relationship, hiding from King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell). The King marriage was already a series of compromises, as Larry comes second to tennis. He meets the addition of Marilyn with resignation, as there’s little true difference between being second or third in a marriage if one can’t be first.
King struggles with keeping her new relationship under wraps while also tending to it, and Riggs struggles with his wife’s perpetual hope that he’ll stop being the person he is. Unreliable and reckless with money, Riggs is perpetually on Priscila’s nerves. His attempts to reconnect with a son from an earlier marriage are greeted with tentative courtesy, but it’s apparent from Larry Riggs’ (Lewis Pullman) introduction that he’s expecting disappointment. That these professional athletes who are in complete control on the court have such disjointed personal lives is a constant in sports films, and the same holds true in Battle of the Sexes.
When the ramp up to Riggs’ and King’s big battle begins in earnest, Battle of the Sexes becomes less about the characters and more about the time period. A small part of Riggs, who’s always portrayed as a harmless clown performing for the cameras, is a sexist, but he’s located that part and dramatically amplified it in his public appearances. However, it’s unlikely that everyone’s in on the joke. By playing a toxic misogynist so well, he’s mostly inspired other misogynists who already didn’t feel much compunction about exclaiming their views in public. Riggs’ clownish sexism is contrasted by Kramer’s more insidious version, the kind that speaks calmly and wears a suit and condescends, the kind that tells women to be grateful and to stop asking questions. He subs in as an announcer and the rot that falls from his mouth is shocking, as is the handsiness of other male announcers when presented with a female tennis player to interview. Battle of the Sexes, shot by Linus Sandgren, has a golden grainy feel that places it firmly in the period, and that kind of verisimilitude likely extends to quotes and recreated interviews. The sexism on display is more powerful because it’s so easily believable.
What’s least powerful about Battle of the Sexes is Beaufoy’s script, which hamstrings the beyond-capable actors with subpar dialogue. Battle of the Sexes contains no memorable lines. Everyone speaks in bromides and slogans, especially Alan Cummings’ uniform designer and Sarah Silverman’s manager. The laughs are purely derived from the physical performances of pros like Carell and Fred Armisen as a fellow snake oil salesman. Something more naturalistic and less portentous and self-important would’ve dramatically improved the film. The viewer doesn’t need to hear lines about the way men view women tennis players, and by extension all women, when they see the Natalie Morales, playing a King ally and fellow tennis pro, react as an elderly male announcer drapes a flabby arm around her. A movie about an event in which the participants are carried into the arena on litters was never going to be subtle; it just didn’t have to be thudding. C+