Battle of the Sexes (12A) ****
Daddy’s Home 2 (12A) *
Beach Rats (15) **
There could hardly be a better time for a movie called Battle of the Sexes. Dramatising tennis legend Billie Jean King’s historic exhibition match with former Wimbledon champion and self-styled chauvinist Bobby Riggs, it uses the hoopla surrounding their 1973 showdown to illustrate how King (a top-of-her-game Emma Stone) changed the sport for the better, not only by campaigning for equal pay for women, but by exposing and ridiculing – largely by example – the rampant sexism surrounding the sport and society at large.
Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine) do a magnificent job here of teasing out complex themes in the framework of a crowd-pleasing sports film and it’s to their credit that they don’t treat it as a sort of jokey period piece or try to score easy laughs from poking fun at outdated modes of thinking. As we all know, these sorts of attitudes persist. They persist in the highest office in America. It would have been a terrible miscalculation to transform the story into a goofy, Anchorman-style comedy.
In this respect it helps that Steve Carrell plays Riggs. Not only does he resemble him physically (thanks to the addition of some enlarged front teeth), he’s a comic actor who has genuine dramatic range and can find depth beneath Riggs’ clownish persona. Riggs may crassly pitch the match to King as “male chauvinist pig vs hairy legged feminist”, but he’s not really the villain of the story. He’s more of a hustler who sees a way to save himself from being put out to pasture by challenging King to a match that he knows will grab headlines. That’s largely because King has been generating plenty of headlines herself by putting her career as the number one player in the world on the line to help set up a separate pro tennis tour that will guarantee better prize money for women.
The film serves up a rousing celebration of King’s defiant attitude in these early scenes, but it also sensitively explores her sexuality when she falls for a hairdresser called Marilyn Barnett (Angela Riseborough) while still married to her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell). Indeed, the film is pretty good at capturing the way people can unexpectedly fall in love but also the way a marriage between two people who still care deeply for one another can quietly implode.
But if the main characters are well-defined, some of the supporting players remain a bit one-note, none more so than Alan Cumming, who never moves beyond the flamboyant gay stereotype as Billie Jean’s platitude-delivering dress designer. Still, in such an entertaining film, that’s the cinematic equivalent of a foot fault and the match itself is nicely handled. There’s no attempt to speed it up with CGI shots or rapid-fire editing; it’s presented much as it would have looked on TV in 1973 and it’s engrossing and exciting in a way that James Erskine and Zara Hayes’s 2013 documentary of the same name never quite managed. As a result, Battle of the Sexes has the honour of being the first great film about tennis, but it’s also a joyous celebration of an important moment of progress that needs to be remembered – now more than ever.
Progress takes a back seat in Daddy’s Home 2, a spectacularly unfunny sequel to the fairly mirthless Mark Wahlberg/Will Ferrell Christmas comedy from 2015. In the first film, Ferrell played an insecure stepdad who finds his desperate attempts to win the respect of his new wife’s kids undermined by the return of their macho biological father (Wahlberg). Having ended that film as friends, though, this one inevitably leaves it to the granddads to disrupt the holiday season, specifically Mel Gibson as Wahlberg’s macho, womanising, ex-astronaut father Kurt, who takes it upon himself to stir up resentment between Dusty (Wahlberg) and Brad (Ferrell) by repeatedly mocking their co-parenting approach to fatherhood as some sort of effeminate affront to manliness. Though one might think that would be the set-up for a final reversal that re-affirms the need for a kinder, gentler approach to parenting, the film takes so much delight in presenting sensitivity and openness as a weird anomaly that it’s hard for any positive message to have much impact. Brad’s loving relationship with his father Jonah (John Lithgow), for instance, is made deliberately creepy and odd and both characters are repeatedly subjected to emasculating violence. Gibson’s Kurt, meanwhile, gets to continue his old-school roguish behaviour with relative impunity, which given Gibson’s own well-publicised transgressions, just adds an uncomfortable edge to a dumb family comedy that isn’t funny enough to begin with.
A big winner at this year’s Sundance film festival, Beach Rats is a surprisingly conventional coming-out saga about a good-looking young guy in Coney Island who can’t admit to himself he’s gay. Frankie (young British actor Harris Dickinson) spends his evening cruising sexually explicit gay chatrooms while going through the pretence of having a girlfriend, his sexual confusion intensified by heavy recreational drug-use and a need to escape the reality of a tough family situation (his invalid father is dying of cancer). Although writer/director Eliza Hittman is good at crafting evocative scenes of sensuous beauty that key us in to the inner turmoil her protagonist can’t come close to articulating, she’s less good at crafting compelling characters and dialogue – something that makes the drama feel stilted and the violent conclusion predictable and a little exploitative. ■