Review: Emma Stone, Steve Carell hold court in dynamite 'Battle of the Sexes'

Brian Truitt
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While Battle of the Sexes is a reminder of the gender issues still plaguing us, it wholeheartedly embraces the equality of its two excellent leads.

Emma Stone (left) stars as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell is Bobby Riggs in the ERA-era 'Battle of the Sexes.'

Emma Stone and Steve Carell serve up great performances as tennis icons/rivals Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the dynamite retro biopic (***½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco and Washington, expands nationwide Sept. 29). The famous 1973 throwdown between the two is sufficiently over the top with marching bands and baby pigs, though it’s the emotional before and cathartic after that overshadow the spectacle. 

The audience has to wait to see the two lead actors' chemistry: Apart from a few phone calls, King and Riggs aren’t shown together until later in the movie when their parallel story lines finally meet.

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Appalled by the fact that female players make eight times less than their male counterparts, King becomes the face of the fledgling Women’s Tennis Association tour, a risky proposition for all involved. “The men are simply more exciting to watch,” tennis promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) tells King. “It’s not your fault. It’s biology.”

King’s game is fueled by such thinking, though she becomes distracted when she falls for L.A. hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and worries their relationship will come out during this not-so-open-minded era. 

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone, right) struggles to balance her tennis life with a blossoming relationship with an L.A. hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) in 'Battle of the Sexes.'

While King, 29, is in her prime, 55-year-old Riggs’ heyday is far behind. His days are spent at an office job, nights are spent gambling with friends — much to the chagrin of his disapproving wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue). As his marriage and home life crumble around him, Riggs increasingly sees a match against King as a way to get back on top, though it isn’t until he annihilates women’s No. 1 Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) that King is convinced to hold court with him.

Rather than completely vilifying Riggs, who wears the “male chauvinist” label with pride publicly yet privately respects King, directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) take an even-handed approach, with each player facing personal struggles and pitfalls. And there Carell impresses as Riggs, who showcases the depth of a showman desperate to hold onto fame even as he engages in humorous, high-profile antics (like playing tennis while holding the leashes of two very large dogs).

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The woman on the other side of the court is even better. Stone’s portrayal of King is more layered, raw and memorable than her Oscar-winning La La Land performance, and certain moments gives important heft to the production, from the way she literally busts into the tennis boys' club to the blossoming romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn.

Dayton and Faris flesh out the proceedings in a way that provides places for many actors to shine. Sarah Silverman chews scenery as Billie Jean's chain-smoking women's tennis promoter, Alan Cumming offers a nice turn as King’s perceptive fashion designer, and Natalie Morales plays tennis star Rosie Casals, who calls the King/Riggs event with Howard Cosell (courtesy of filmmaking wizardry).

Battle of the Sexes is less an issues movie and more an entertaining history lesson, with Stone and Carell proving they're a winning match.

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