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Victory tastes bittersweet in ‘The Battle of the Sexes’

  • COURTESY FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES

    Steve Carell, left, and Emma Stone in a scene from “Battle of the Sexes.”

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES”

** 1/2

(PG-13, 2:01)

Can an inspirational movie also be a drag?

That’s the feeling one can’t shake walking out of “Battle of the Sexes,” a fictionalized rendering of the 1973 tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old hustler Bobby Riggs and the circumstances surrounding it.

At stake is the opportunity for women in tennis to get equal pay consideration, the reputation of King, who could have just stayed in her lane, the perceptions of society at large and, perhaps most importantly, the standing of the men in power.

“I’m going to be the best,” says Emma Stone playing Billie Jean. “That way I can really change things.”

Fast forward 44 years: We’re still here, aren’t we?

“Battle of the Sexes,” directed by “Little Miss Sunshine” team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and written by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), is on the whole a fairly standard, if unexceptional film that has two major things going for it: Emma Stone and timeliness.

The story in 1972 begins by establishing King as the best female player in the world — celebrated and adored everywhere she goes — but still not earning even half of the prize money top male tennis players get. A well-cast Stone transforms into the quiet, driven and sharp tennis pro.

Insulted by the male-dominated tennis establishment, she and eight other female players boycott their tournaments and form their own with the help of Gladys Heldman (a fabulously styled Sarah Silverman) and a Virginia Slims sponsorship.

It’s in this climate that Bobby Riggs (played with great panache by Steve Carell), a bored, washed up pro with a wealthy wife (Elisabeth Shue) gambling problem proposes a male vs. female tennis match. Riggs is painted as a fool and a jokester, whose sexism is a gimmick and not necessarily evil.

King says no at first, but after Riggs crushes Aussie tennis champ Margaret Court, she decides she has to play in order to redeem her sport.

Behind all of this, the movie takes on the personal lives of the players — Rigg’s failing marriage and strained relationship with his son, and King’s struggle with her marriage to a man (Austin Stowell) and a fledgling affair with a woman, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

This background is all very thinly drawn and suspiciously Hollywood-ized. “Battle of the Sexes” revels in the “can you believe men said/did/thought this” factor at the expense of the storytelling and character development. It’s not that that’s not effective — seeing a male television announcer co-host the match with Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) with his hand placed firmly on her shoulder made me shudder — there’s just a nagging sense that it could have been better. .

The final showdown is thrilling, but to what end? From there on out women were thought of and compensated equally?

There is a worthy lesson in “Battle of the Sexes” and some hope therein for these still unequal times: Nine women at the top of their game risked everything to fight for equality. There is power in numbers and unity; you just have to be willing to lose it all.

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