This movie has some hilarious sequences and Steve Carell’s portrayal of Riggs is a big reason why. He nails the outrageous tendencies of the man and, frankly, steals the movie away from Emma Stone. Her performance as Billy Jean is fine but she is not nearly as sympathetic or relatable as Riggs. You’re clearly meant to feel for her as she deals with her own personal problems but the way she treats her husband, Larry, gets in the way of that. I was on board with her goal to change the pay gap but I found her unlikeable. Meanwhile, Riggs is clearly the chauvinistic alpha male who has a lot of insecurities but his sense of humour and general demeanor around his loved ones break through. They are both flawed characters who have their shining moments which is great though I couldn’t help but think that Billy Jean should have been more compelling a character. Maybe it is more true to life and of the real woman but it made me question rooting for her.
There are also several moments that took me out of the film. There is an instance where Billy Jean is getting a haircut and the camera focuses on her face for about two minutes. There is no reason for a mundane scene to play out for that long except to show you that she is infatuated with the hairdresser. It makes sense because the latter becomes a central character from that point on but it could have been handled better. Subtlety is in short supply here as everything is spelled out for you in painful detail. Certain scenes would be more interesting if they weren’t executed so heavy handedly. That being said, the film gets better with time and the second half has enough payoff that satisfies. The soundtrack is pretty good, and there is a memorable car ride with Elton John’s Rocket Man blasting in the background. On a technical level, the movie is firing on all cylinders. It’s just that there are pacing issues and some scenes drag on a little.
The film doesn’t overstay its welcome in the third act which is genuinely tense and well paced. The sets of tennis are well directed and you really get a sense that the actors are the ones playing instead of painfully obvious stunt doubles. I would recommend Battle of the Sexes with the caveat that I wish it was less on the nose because it’s a good movie but one that is held back from being great.