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I’ll watch tennis, the biggest matches, the best players, live. I do. My memory’s viewing history has been stocked with a fair-enough share of exhilarating tennis matches over time.
Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs is not one of them. (I was not alive in 1973.) But it’s the match at the center of “Battle of the Sexes,” a biopic starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell about social issues that now are becoming topical again — male vs. female and the gender pay gap. And yet, “Battle of the Sexes” turns out to be a better synopsis than it is a movie. It’s ultimately not all that interesting. And why? Because watching tennis highlights is not all that interesting.
That’s not all it is! Buried inside is a very, very enticing story about King grappling with her own sexuality — Andrea Riseborough playing her lover/hairstylist and Austin Stowell her husband/career coach. All the best scenes of the film come out of this which becomes kind of a forgotten side story, like when an actor or situation has a short but awesome run on a TV show and you wish they’d make a whole different show out of it.
It sure feels like the better Billie Jean King movie would come from what happens next, after King beats Riggs (I can’t possibly have spoiled that for you) and accepts becoming a trailblazer for women’s rights and gay rights.
In “Battle of the Sexes,” after being Riggs, King disappears to the locker room weeping. She’s not sure she’s ready for all of this, to be thrust into the spotlight, to be put on a pedestal, to be an activist. That’s the movie we want to see. Let Emma Stone star in that. She was good. Sarah Silverman’s Gladys is easily the most entertaining character of the film, but Stone was good.
But writer Simon Beaufoy and directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris didn’t set out to make a movie about sexual awakening and female activism. They wanted to make a movie about a tennis match we all know the result of, and they failed to see where the story wanted to go.
Worse, they had to cast Riggs, Carrell’s part. Riggs comes off as a joker, a nut job, and he probably was — but damn all the time he got to take away from Stone’s Billie Jean and Riseborough’s Marilyn Barnett.
If you’re going to make a good sports movie, the climax has to pay off big. To the filmmakers’ credit, the build-up was done really well — seeing the players’ backstage, hearing the buzz building in the arena, being in the TV production room. But once the match started, there wasn’t anything there. You were watching a tennis match, one you knew the result of, from a high-up wide angle, that was being played at a much slower pace than you see the athletes playing it at today.
In the end, boring tennis highlights took me out of the movie, instead of pulling me in until the very end.
“Battle of the Sexes”: ★★
What I find most striking about La La Land is its beauty.
Damien Chazelle’s original Hollywood musical isn’t perfect. It has its share of head-tilting moments — an opening musical number which tests your commitment straightaway to what you think you’ve come to the theater to see — and it’s maybe not a movie I’d watch over and over, despite its leading lady. But it’s no less an awe-striking work of cinematography, with all of its vibrant color saturated in perfect light.
We see it throughout the film, in all of the smallest jazz clubs, but most admiringly in the film’s final musical number — co-stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s largest dancing sequence together in the film, bits of which you’ve seen in the previews but can’t begin to measure up to the end product.
Stone (as Mia, an aspiring actress) and Gosling (as Sebastian, a struggling jazz musician) are big dreamers testing the limits of love and ambition. In doing so, I also think the film tells a meaningful story about how love can help you become the person you’re meant to be.
Save the biggest praise for Stone. While both actors sing and dance, it’s Stone who seems to take her character to deeper, more vulnerable places emotionally, as Mia watches Sebastian find success which leaves her wondering if she’s good enough to find hers.
“La La Land”: ★★★