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Play like a girl - ‘Battle of the Sexes’

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The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is a legitimately important historic moment – one of the most important to ever spring from the world of sports. It was a blow struck for feminism and women’s rights, a blow that still resonates today.

Frankly, it’s remarkable that it has taken this long for it to receive the cinematic treatment.

“Battle of the Sexes” is a sharp, well-made dramedy that turns this true-life event into something compelling and funny and poignant. Thanks to excellent work from lead performers Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Steve Carell (“Despicable Me 3”), a great sense of humor, a deftly-recreated early ‘70s vibe and some surprisingly well-done tennis sequences, the end result is a bigger-than-sports sports movie that engages and entertains.

In 1972, Billie Jean King is the consensus best women’s tennis player in the world. Despite her excellence, however, she isn’t given her due by the male-dominant establishment. She asks for equitable treatment regarding prize money, but is dismissed with a condescending head pat by USTA honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman, “Walking Out”). Instead of acquiescing to Kramer, King walks away.

Along with her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, “The Book of Henry”), King enlists a number of her fellow women’s players to start a tour of their own. And despite the misgivings of many, this new tour starts to find some footing.

Meanwhile, aging former tennis star Bobby Riggs is living with his loving wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, TV’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) and longing for something more. He’s a gambler and a hustler who sees the conflict between King and the powers that be as an opportunity – namely, a match between himself and the best in women’s tennis, a chance to put on a show and make a whole lot of money.

King’s reluctance to participate is exacerbated by conflicting feelings about her husband Larry (Austin Stowell, “Colossal”) and her new friend Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough, “Nocturnal Animals”); Marilyn’s presence in particular stirs unexpected (and initially unwelcome) emotions in King. And Riggs is pushing hard to turn the entire thing into an event – a push that is successful.

When the two finally take to the court for the monumental match, tens of thousands are on hand to watch it live and some 90 million are watching on television to see if the newly-minted feminist icon can take down the self-professed male chauvinist pig.

Spoiler alert - she wins.

Recreating an iconic moment cinematically isn’t easy – particularly when it’s a moment whose outcome is decidedly well-known. The King-Riggs match is one of those sporting touchstones, an event whose significance has carried through generations. Bringing it to life in a way that both honors the story and maintains some level of narrative tension requires a lot of things to go right.

Happily, they all go right for “Battle of the Sexes.”

There’s a lot of talent behind the camera on this one. Noted directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris return to the chair for the first time since 2012’s “Ruby Sparks;” their quirky aesthetic fits nicely with both the tale being told and the trappings of the period. And screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has an eclectic collection of stories into which this one slots surprisingly well. All of them are clearly committed to staying true to the integrity of the story’s heart, which results in a breezily-paced and compelling film.

And lest we forget, this is still a sports movie. What King and Riggs do on the court matters. Say what you will about the importance of the narrative – if the tennis is bad, the movie doesn’t work. “Battle of the Sexes” works – a combination of movie magic and what must have been exhaustive training on the part of Stone and Carrell creates tennis action that is actually quite reminiscent of the era’s style.

Stone is strong as Billie Jean King; it’s a performance that forces her out of her comfort zone a little bit – in a good way. She captures the juxtaposition between King’s athletic ease, her public persona and her private conflicts nicely. But as good as she is, Carell is even better. He embodies Riggs with such raw charisma that he remains likable even as he leans into his (mostly) put-on chauvinism. His easy grin and sparkling wit are on full display, bringing forth the hustler spirit of Riggs with a performance that is constantly, unwaveringly compelling. The dynamic between the two is eminently watchable, serving as a firm foundation for the film.

The supporting cast has its highlights as well. Riseborough plays Marilyn as a quietly joyful free spirit. Silverman is a fast-talking delight as Gladys and Pullman is perfectly smug as Kramer. Stowell is fine and Shue does a lot with a little. There are a ton of other familiar faces sprinkled throughout as well – Natalie Morales, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen and a host of others – that contribute to a tight, well-built ensemble.

“Battle of the Sexes” isn’t just a good sports movie – although it is that. It’s a good movie, period. No qualification necessary. It’s a timely reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go, driven by some excellent performances and a story that remains compelling even almost half-a-century after the fact.

[4 out of 5]

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