Young woman with short dark hair and glasses at a podium with microphones arm wrestling a middle aged man with brown hair and glasses.

Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) promote their upcoming match in Battle of the Sexes.

The superiority of the male sex was on the line when Bobby Riggs took on Billie Jean King in the 1973 tennis match known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” At least, that’s what organizers of the overblown spectacle claimed, and a sizable portion of the population actually believed it.

I was traveling out West at the time, and I happened to drop by a local restaurant in time to hear some macho types at the next table grouse about Riggs’s ignominious loss. It meant nothing, they insisted, except that the 55-year-old, out-of-shape Riggs was no match for the 29-year-old, top-of-her-game King.

Well, of course it meant nothing. Then again, it meant quite a lot in an age when women athletes—and women in general—were struggling to claim their rightful place in a society that had long been defined by male privilege. What makes the new comedy Battle of the Sexes so enjoyable is that it simultaneously treats the match as a ridiculous publicity stunt and as a historic milestone in the fight for gender equality.

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team behind 2006’s wonderful Little Miss Sunshine) and written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), the film manages to be both lighthearted and evenhanded as it explores the personal struggles that led up to the media event. Because the public was not privy to many of those struggles, the film will come as a revelation even if the outcome of the match is not.

King (Emma Stone) is a top-rated tennis pro who puts her career on the line by founding the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) after learning the governing tennis organization plans to pay women players a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. Soon afterward, the married King is forced to question her sexuality when a hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) charms her way into her life.

Riggs (Steve Carell) is a tennis has-been whose addiction to gambling threatens his marriage with his wealthy wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue). Determined to hustle his way back into the public eye and make a tidy profit in the process, Riggs seizes on the idea of challenging King to a match that will determine once and for all whether males really are the superior sex. It’s a brilliant scam in an era when society is divided over the fledgling “women’s lib” movement, but King originally turns him down. Riggs then challenges another top female player, but the outcome of that match only makes his showdown with King inevitable.

Incidentally, though Riggs rants that women belong in the kitchen and bedroom rather than in the sports world, both King and the filmmakers appear to realize it’s all an act. The flick’s real villain is Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), director of the tennis organization that denies equal pay for women and thus inspires King to form the WTA.  

Movies often rise or fall on their casting, but that can’t be said of Battle of the Sexes. The film sometimes succeeds because of casting choices and other times in spite of them.

Carell is typically hilarious as Riggs, who comes off as the Eveready Bunny of hustlers. One of his funniest scenes takes place at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting during which he tells fellow addicts their problem is not that they gamble but that they gamble poorly.

Stone is a bit more problematic, though it’s not really her fault. The thin, pretty Oscar winner seems miscast as the athletic King but pulls it off fairly well thanks to a heavy makeup job and a breezy script that seldom delves into deep emotions.

The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces, which sometimes adds to the fun and other times is a distraction. Sarah Silverman fits into the former category as Gladys Heldman, the WTA’s promotional powerhouse, while cameos by Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen and Chris Parnell fit into the latter. As for Alan Cumming (The Good Wife), he’s a bit of a distraction as the gay designer of the WTA’s tennis dresses, but that’s mostly because his presence reminds us of how much more he could do with a meatier role.  

Still, meaty roles are not what this film is about. It sets out to entertain us as it educates us about a surreal yet groundbreaking moment in the history of women’s sports, and it succeeds admirably.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Battle of the Sexes (PG-13) opened Sept. 29 at theaters nationwide. 

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