Here’s a familiar premise: A rousing contest pits a bloviating man against a far more dignified woman as the nation watches, awestruck. “Battle of the Sexes,” which screened at the ongoing Toronto Film Festival, is not a documentation of the 2016 presidential election, but such timely, obvious comparisons can’t be unseen. To its credit, the movie has far more going for it than a Trumpian analog.
Chronicling the renowned 1973 match between tennis champs Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), “Battle of the Sexes” is a spry sports duel and a soft character study about a woman finding herself, well after she was blessed and cursed with fame. It’s no spoiler alert to say that King won her bout, and it’s not a stretch to assume that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) thought Hillary Clinton would, too, after Fox Searchlight greenlit the project in April 2015.
The movie’s heart belongs to the 29-year-old King, but Riggs is very much a part of this story — he’s the origin, in fact. Feeling washed up at 55, the eternal showman and sometime chauvinist thought it clever to challenge the No. 1 female tennis pro. Carell’s portrayal can veer toward the cartoonish, but directors Valerie Dayton and Jonathan Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “Ruby Sparks”) keep his energy in check with a peppy tone that turns both defiant and bittersweet as King’s trials uncoil. Here we have a closeted woman fighting for equal pay in an industry that — surprise, surprise — favors men’s contributions. (Realizing female competitors will be paid 8 times less than their male counterparts, King and her cheeky manager, played by Sarah Silverman, start their own league.) All the while, Riggs is baiting King with a gaudy media blitz: “I want to prove that women are lousy,” he tells the press. Game on.
Riggs’ words are no match for King’s snickers. Stone, at once graceful and, well, stony, shows dynamic composure in the role, her first since winning an Oscar in February. She’s again working with “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who applies a gauzy spiritedness to the culminating tennis match and a velvety luster to King’s burgeoning romance with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough, resplendent as ever in an underdeveloped part). In the span of a single scene, Stone can seem both content and unsettled. King doesn’t want to be distracted by a paramour, or by her husband (Austin Stowell), who suddenly shows up while she and her fellow Women’s Tennis Association comrades are on the road. But she presses on; when you’re fighting to prove yourself, there is little time for despair.
“Battle of the Sexes” is a coming-out story, a gender-equality tale and a fun portrait of unconventional athletic rivalry — all of which are best described with one word: satisfying. Dayton and Faris have made a pleasant, watchable film, even if some of the meat on its bones is cooked medium rare. What does it have to say about sexism? The obvious things: hokey lines about women’s lib, a canned rah-rah finale squarely in King’s corner, a displacement of all the patriarchal nonsense still at play today. These are broad strokes, folks, but they’re so rousing and lovely that it almost doesn’t matter.
Such hokeyness is even more pardonable while gawking at the rest of the stacked supporting cast, namely Natalie Morales, Alan Cumming, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Chris Parnell and Martha MacIsaac. They’re crowd-pleasers, all of them, crystallizing a movie that doubles as an appreciable reminder of the progress that’s been made since 1973, even if Donald Trump is our president. In the end, though, “Battle of the Sexes” is about one woman ― a true icon ― who discovered her authentic self in the midst of frenzy. It’s a victory point.
“Battle of the Sexes” opens in theater Sept. 22.