Emma Stone and Steve Carell shine but sport takes a back seat in tennis biopic Battle of the Sexes, says MacDara Conroy

Battle of the Sexes is the name on the posters and the trailer. But the titular tennis court clash from 1973 is just the frame on which to hang a biopic of one of its participants, the legendary Billie Jean King: pioneer of equality for women in tennis, as well as ultimately one of the leading advocates for LGBT rights in sport and beyond.

That role’s a tall order, and perhaps it would have been more appropriate to have an LGBT actor take the part. In 2017 there are no more excuses for casting directors on that front. On the other hand, it might help to further normalise LGBT communities in mainstream American culture with America’s sweetheart in the role, and no one today fits that bill quite like Emma Stone.

It helps that once those iconic glasses are on her face, the resemblance is striking. But more importantly, Stone is instantly believable as a strong, driven and capable leader in sport and business alike. Suffice it to say she’s no shrinking violet to misogynist tennis executive Jack Warner (Bill Pullman), nor her ‘Battle of the Sexes’ opponent Bobby Riggs and his ‘chauvinist pig’ persona.

The Riggs portion of this tale might be the B-plot, but Steve Carell is uncanny in his portrayal of the washed-up former champion with a professional wrestler’s knack for self-promotion, as comfortable clowning around as he is essaying the pathos in a compulsive gambler living for one more thrill. It’s a role too easy to dismiss as slight, and undeservedly so. Without him the film wouldn’t impress as well as it does.

Angela Riseborough and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes

However, this is without a doubt the Billie Jean King show. The story is driven by her moves, both in the tennis world and in her personal life, as she embarks on a tentative affair with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), depicted here as her hairdresser rather than King’s secretary as she was in reality. It’s one of a number of licenses taken with characters, timelines and the like in Simon Beaufoy’s ‘based on a true story’ screenplay, tweaked just enough to make things fit neatly for a crowd-pleaser.

Meanwhile, Stone and Carell don’t have to carry the burden alone, as they’re surrounded by a bevy of character actors and comedy faces in smaller roles and cameos. Sarah Silverman, Elisabeth Shue, Alan Cumming, Jamey Sheridan, John C McGinley and the like may not have a whole lot to do, but they only add to the charm. Others are a bit more distracting, like Chris Parnell as a radio DJ, while Fred Armisen as a purveyor of ‘nutritional supplements’ threatens to steer the whole enterprise into parody.

Thankfully the directing duo of Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) keep it between the lines, even if at times they get a little heavy with technique. Their background in music videos reflects in their use — or rather overuse — of match cuts, which lose their power the more noticeable they become.

But it’s their lack of interest in the sport of tennis itself that’s the real mark against it. Indeed, the film’s weakest section is the climatic tennis battle; it’s hard to follow, and entirely absent of the tension or catharsis the whole story has been building towards. Tennis might come before all for Billie Jean King, but it’s far from a priority for these filmmakers.

Matt Damon in Suburbicon

Also out this Friday is Suburbicon, a tonal mess from George Clooney the director, not the actor; think The Monuments Men rather than Good Night, and Good Luck.

It’s not only an uncomfortable mash-up of Coen Brothers period screwball (it’s adapted from a long-shelved story by Joel and Ethan themselves) with well-meaning but pat social commentary for the Trump era. It’s also a comedic parody of film noir tropes, with Matt Damon as a mid-century everyman with all the trimmings: a loving wife and son, a model home in the ‘burbs, and a sinister side that may or may not involve a murder plot with mob connections.

It works far better as a farce, especially when Oscar Isaac shows up as fast-talking insurance fraud investigator; he’s the film’s fleeting highlight. Julianne Moore is good, too, as a melodramatic play on the likes of her character in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven in not one but two roles.

But Damon doesn’t have the acting chops nor the comic timing required for his end, which is a fatal flaw when so much of the comedy derives from the juxtaposition of his determinately straight-heeled character and the craziness of his “situation”.

Ironically enough for a film that teases a tokenistic subplot about integration in the civil rights era, it’s Suburbicon’s own failure to integrate its various modes and influences that stands out so sorely. In particular, a recurring motif of white locals intimidating their new black neighbours, from a few crew-cut oiks to a braying crowd, is the kind of hyperrealist touch better suited for another film entirely. Better luck next time, George.

Battle of the Sexes and Suburbicon open nationwide on Friday November 24th

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