She’s 29, a world-class athlete at the top of her game. He’s a hard-living 55 whose Wimbledon days are decades behind him and whose favorite form of cardio is running his mouth. But the now-iconic 1973 face-off between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was never really about the tennis; it was a litmus test for the era, a flashpoint where social politics, sport, and celebrity met on the court before an estimated 90 million television viewers.
Emma Stone, in librarian wire-rims and a chocolate brown shag, plays the public King as an undauntable renegade — she fights fiercely to hold on to her No. 1 ranking, and effectively invents the Women’s Tennis Association when the regular league refuses to raise the ladies’ $1,500 championship prize to match the men’s $12,000. But in private she’s racked with self-doubt. And when a swinging L.A. hairdresser named Marilyn (Bloodline’s Andrea Riseborough) comes into her life, the spark between them threatens to upend not just King’s marriage but everything she’s worked for professionally.
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) paint Sexes’ battles in the bright primary colors of the film’s ’70s setting, soundtracking it all to groovy AM-radio gold and sanding down the ragged edges of Riggs’ noxious misogyny. In Steve Carell’s amiable hands, Bobby’s antics — he’s an incurable gambler and huckster, proud to be “putting the show back in chauvinism” — are more clownish than offensive, a goofy cultural dinosaur with the vintage yellowed veneers to match. Though this is Stone and Carell’s second time on screen together, after 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love, they actually share only a scant handful of scenes. But their separation opens up the story to a raft of splashy supporting turns, including Alan Cumming as the WTA’s droll wardrobe designer, Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ long-suffering wife, Sarah Silverman as King’s chain-smoking go-go agent, and Fred Armisen as a shark-eyed Dr. Feelgood in a white leisure suit, handing out horse pills like Skittles. And though it’s obvious that Billie Jean’s real romance is with the dreamy, golden-haired Marilyn, Austin Stowell brings quiet pathos to Larry — the man cast more as caretaker, cheerleader, and perpetual plus-one than husband. (When he tells Marilyn that they’ll both place distant seconds in the end to his wife’s first love, tennis, it’s with resignation, not bitterness.)
As Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy builds to the titular showdown, it hardly matters that the match itself doesn’t look like much. The symbolic power of what happened there — one small step, one giant leap for womankind — is still the movie’s truest ace. B+