It’s clear that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were more concerned with the message and the era than the characters. To its credit, the film embodies the decade well. The music choices, hairstyles, glasses, outfits and televised broadcasts all firmly plant the audience within the period. The triumph of women fighting to be seen as just as strong as men is never understated with painting Riggs as a jerk and King as a hero. The climax even goes the extra mile with the triumphant music and staging that is comes with a guarantee to make at least one audience member stand up and cheer. I counted about twelve at the screening.
While Battle of the Sexes does encapsulate the era and the events, it doesn’t bother exploring the more personal aspects of these characters past the easy emotional triggers. In the sex scenes between Billie and Marilyn, they are shot in extreme close-ups with sensual music. Erotic, yes, but how did this relationship develop? Nearly every scene between Billie and Marilyn always gets too close, but not very personal, in scenes of cutting hair, making out or driving. They never have enough focus on their relationship because Billie is trying to remain focused on tennis. So is the movie, despite the surprising lack of tennis up until the big match.
Rather than paint a grand picture of the gender feud between Riggs and King, Battle of the Sexes merely dices the story up into a simplistic script that could easily go from theatrical feature to TV movie of the week. It’s a movie for moms that want to go to the movies to feel moved and empowered, but not think too much about King’s relationship or Riggs’ compulsion. Battle of the Sexes would rather stir the pot to boil up the expected events to King’s victory, complete with a forced bit of dialogue about gay rights and the typical closure of historical text and photos. On that level, I can’t fault the film for doing what audiences will expect it to do, but I couldn’t help but feel there was more to this story left unexplored, presenting mere glimpses of a bigger character arc before sweeping them under the rug for the big game.