Movie review: 'Battle of the Sexes'

Brad Keefe

For a movie set around the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, “Battle of the Sexes” sure feels timely.

The widely hyped match between the driven, No. 1 women's player in the world and the brash former men's champ was a cultural flashpoint in the midst of the women's liberation movement.

This is a movie about how far things have come with regards to gender and LGBTQ equality, as well as a call for how far we still have to go. Oh, and it makes these points in crowd-pleasing fashion.

King (Emma Stone) is the top-ranked women's player on the pro-tennis circuit. When tour promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) hosts a pro tournament where the men's purse is eight times higher than the women's purse, King decides she's had enough.

She and other top female players decide to form their own league, under the leadership of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Players sign contracts with a symbolic pay of $1.

Meanwhile, 55-year-old former men's champ Riggs (Steve Carell), coping with a dull desk job and marital strife caused by his gambling issues, fumes over the pay these women receive while he occasionally toils on the senior circuit.

Riggs is a showman and self-described “male chauvinist pig” who hatches a plan for a hyped exhibition match pitting man against woman. The rest is history.

Well, kind of. Like many “based on a true story” stories, “Battle of the Sexes” takes a lot of liberty with the subject matter, shifting timelines for dramatic effect and extrapolating details from personal relationships, most significantly King's relationship with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

The movie heightens the drama in this real-life relationship, as King faces her own questions about her sexuality in the midst of her marriage to a man.

But director duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton — who notably swap the usual order of their names in the end credits — effectively use the palette of real life to make a story so punchy and entertaining, all is forgiven.

Stone gives a standout performance — alternately funny, warm and heartbreaking. Carell's character has less range to show, but he's great reteaming with the “Little Miss Sunshine” directors.

So you've got a tennis match as a national focal point for gender equality, a lesbian love story and the tale of a man seeking former glory. Not everything clicks, and some characters are notably one-dimensional, but it's hard to argue with the whole being highly entertaining and thought-provoking.

“Battle of the Sexes”

Opens Thursday

4 stars out of 5