PLOT The story of the symbolic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
CAST Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough
RATED PG-13 (some sexuality)
PLAYING AT Manhattan-area theaters; opens locally Sept. 29.
BOTTOM LINE A winning combination of sports movie and civil rights story, with ace performances from Stone and Carell.
“Battle of the Sexes” shares its title with a headline-grabbing 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old women’s champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and 55-year-old former star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). It’s an excellent example of hyperbolic branding that reinforced men’s fears of emasculation at the hands of some imagined bogeywoman — when really, as Stone’s King tells a smug tennis official (Bill Pullman), “We just want a little bit of what you’ve got. That’s what you can’t stand.”
“Battle of the Sexes,” directed by spouses Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”), feels like the right movie at the right time: an upbeat, great-looking and beautifully acted piece of entertainment that also works as a simple request for respect and equal treatment in American society.
It makes its case without too much preaching or demonizing (though there is a bit of gloating), and it never forgets that what we’re really here to see is a sports movie, with all the drama and suspense that entails. On all counts, “Battle of the Sexes” delivers.
The film’s two leads couldn’t be better. Stone absolutely shines as King, a ferocious athlete and vocal advocate for gender-equal pay. She turns into a stammering schoolgirl, though, when an attractive hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (an excellent Andrea Riseborough), becomes King’s first female lover.
Carell all but steals the movie as Riggs, a high-energy gambling addict and born showman. He spouts misogynistic one-liners, but only to help boost interest in the match. For Riggs, the match is a career comeback and a potentially big payday, but for King it takes on a symbolic and personal importance.
Just about every aspect of this movie is pitch-perfect, from Sarah Silverman’s supporting role as a chain-smoking publicist to Simon Beaufoy’s impeccable screenplay to Nicholas Britell’s lovely, slightly loungey score.
What registers overall is a sense of optimism — a belief that, in some not-too-distant future, equality might actually exist.