PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –– It was when Billie met Bobby.
At center court.
With everyone watching.
It was dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, which serves as the title of this bubbly period comedy about an event staged and televised and viewed by 90-million Americans in 1973 – one of the most watched sports events of all time.
That’s when 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs, his triumphant professional tennis career fading in the rear-view mirror, challenged 29-year-old Billie Jean King, still a champ at the top of her game, to a high-profile happening in the Houston Astrodome.
Any woman beating any man? Unthinkable.
In Battle of the Sexes, Emma Stone’s King and Steve Carell’s Riggs – two technically solid, smartly judged star turns and enjoyably watchable impersonations – perform like an efficient mixed-doubles tandem, serving and volleying effortlessly as they take us back to a time when, as Riggs puts it, he could put the “show back in chauvinism.”
Married directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also conjured Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, manage to demonstrate in the yin-and-yang screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, who also wrote the Oscar-winning script for Slumdog Millionaire, that, yes, you could say that we’ve come a long way, baby, in terms of gender equality, but that, let’s face it, you could also say that we’ve barely budged.
As they say in tennis: game, set, match.
At the time that Riggs issued the on-court challenge to King that would eventuate into a media circus, each was married and struggling with off-court issues, primarily his gambling compulsions and her emerging sexual identity.
But it was the sexual revolution and the women’s movement that served as context and background for what seemed at the time just an extravagant publicity stunt that would come to take on considerable symbolic value.
As for the film itself, it could stand to be – like one’s tennis game – a lot more hard-hitting, although the obvious sugarcoating is easy to forgive. As it is, the film is always pleasantly competent, but rarely inspired.
Instead, although there are fleeting moments of on-the-nose preachiness, the directors generally employ a light, careful touch – the cinematic equivalent of a safe second serve in tennis – and allow their accessible, audience-friendly enterprise to register as a good-natured, friendly reminder that the equal-rights battle is still being fought, given the unequal, gender-based pay scale: y’know, the more things change…
The directors are aided in their efforts by a strong supporting ensemble that includes Sarah Silverman, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming, Fred Armisen, Eric Christian Olsen, and Austin Stowell.
And Dayton and Faris can’t help but highlight passages that lend the film contemporary relevance: try not flashing on a Hillary-Donald debate when the hyped showdown gets underway. It’s impossible.
So we’ll lob 3 stars out of 4 for the generally winning Battle of the Sexes, which pretty much avoids unforced errors and foot faults. And calling it a crowd-pleaser is anything but a backhand compliment.