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The Moviegoer: Battle of the Sexes

Not a perfect match but fun to watch

© Fox Searchlight Pictures / The true story of the 1973 tennis match between world number one Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs.
     This historical dramedy returns us to 1973, when Billie Jean King (Emma Stone: La La Land) ranks among the biggest names in tennis — yet earns one of the smallest paychecks. The rationale is that men are more fun to watch — yet women’s events sell as many tickets. To change the status quo, King convinces the female tennis players of southern California to join in a women’s tour.
     In turn, powerful tennis figure Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman: Trouble) blacklists them from all Grand Slam tournaments and titles. Still, the women’s independent tour earns its players better money than they got playing events with the men.
     Former tennis star Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell: Despicable Me 3) watches with interest. A showboat with a chip on his shoulder, Bobby has sacrificed his tennis skills to gambling and fast living. His wife bankrolls his life of luxury, but he wants back in the spotlight. 
     To get there, he hatches a plan: Challenge the women’s champion to a match. If he wins, male superiority will be upheld.
     King ignores Riggs until the 55-year-old has-been soundly defeats a female rival. She finally accepts his challenge, knowing that women’s future in the sport depends on beating him.
     King has another problem: Her affair with hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough: Black Mirror). Being outed as a lesbian would ruin her career, alienate her from her family and erase her from tennis history. The conflict of her feelings versus societal pressures wears on her game.
     As Riggs and King prepare for their match, they face their demons. Riggs must examine the profligacy that has alienated family and friends. King must decide whether a relationship with a woman is worth the price of her marriage and her career. As the pressure mounts, the world waits to see if women can hold their own in a man’s world.
     History already knows who won.
     Thus, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the team behind Ruby Sparks) are less interested in the match than in the characters. The result is very watchable but rather shallow. King’s tumultuous relationship with Marilyn is sugar-coated. Viewers are hammered with ham-fisted dialogue about sexism and the times. It’s a good idea to do stage setting for viewers, but Dayton and Faris drop anvils of exposition on nearly every scene. 
     A pair of great performances makes up for storytelling faults. As Billy Jean King, Stone is wonderful in a performance that gives her much more to do than her Oscar-winning role in La La Land. She inhabits King’s spirit, showing how she was torn apart by her sexuality. 
     As Riggs, Carell has the lighter of the two roles. He cavorts around tennis courts with sheep, poses naked and spouts sexist rhetoric with aplomb. Beneath the bravado, Carell finds Riggs’ humanity as a deeply insecure man who hates the idea that he’s forgotten.
     Battle of the Sexes is a fun lesson in history, showing younger viewers how far we’ve come and how far women have to go in their struggle for equality.
Good Dramedy • PG-13 • 121 mins.
New this Week
American Made
     Pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is tired of the friendly skies. Then the CIA recruits him to run reconnaissance in South America.
     As a gunrunner, government informant and part-time drug trafficker, Barry is living a life more interesting — and more dangerous. Can he continue playing the government and criminal enterprises against each other for his profit? Or is he headed for a crash and burn? 
     Based on a mostly true story, American Made offers up its tale of corruption with black humor. 
     It’s good to see Cruise in a role that requires more than running and shouting, but this isn’t much deeper. Director Doug Liman is known for pithy action comedies, and Seal’s story is perfect for that sensibility. 
Prospects: Bright • R • 115 mins. 
     To learn what happens after death, medical student Courtney (Ellen Page) recruits four friends to help her stop her heart — and shortly restart it. When her near-death experience leads to odd new talents, the other students want their turns.
     Life after death is wonderful — until it isn’t. Spirits soon follow the students through the veil to haunt the living. Will these death-darers be drawn back?
     A remake of a terrible 1980s’ thriller, Flatliners has all the telltale signs of being terrible: pretty stars with middling acting chops, a senseless plot and a star from the original in a cameo role (Kiefer Sutherland, looking rightfully embarrassed). 
Prospects: DOA • PG-13 • 108 mins.