It takes a while for the penny to drop.
“Battle of the Sexes” is what they’re calling the new movie about the ridiculous/historic 1973 tennis match promoted back then by that very title, and yet for long, long stretches there’s no tennis to be seen. Where in the holy name of Serena is the tennis?
The film gets there eventually, and then some, by which point you’ll hopefully have realized that the smallest of the battles is the one unfolding on the court. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — only their second feature since “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006 — from a script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), “Battle of the Sexes” is slick and wholly enjoyable, a pop provocation whose medicine goes down easy via outsize, engaging performances in the leads.
Of the two, Steve Carell has the easier job, because Bobby Riggs was already a cartoon. A seasoned pro and top prizewinner in his youth, Riggs was 55 and washed-up by the early 1970s, and “Battle” has him idling his heels in a do-nothing office job for his father-in-law. Blessed and/or cursed with the metabolism of a caffeinated Jack Russell terrier, Riggs hustles games with anyone who asks, gambles away his marriage (Elisabeth Shue plays his frosty wife), and antically searches for a way back into the limelight.
With the ascension of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to the top of women’s professional tennis, Riggs has his Great Idea: a mixed-gender challenge match to prove that man is stronger, on the court and (by implication) off. The movie, to its credit, understands that as entertaining as the hoopla around that match was, it was ultimately a sideshow. King had much bigger fish to fry.
Actually, the first order of business in “Battle of the Sexes” is King and her colleagues quitting the US Lawn Tennis Association over vastly unequal prize-money purses and founding a separate organization that became the Virginia Slims Circuit, progenitor of the Women’s Tennis Association. Faris and Dayton make this section fun and pointed, playing up the smug piggishness of USLTA promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) while highlighting the camaraderie of players like King, Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), Valerie Ziegenfuss (Mickey Sumner), Nancy Richey (Lauren Kline), and Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz (Martha MacIsaac).
Overseeing the group is a brash Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis Magazine and general mother hen, and over in the corner is a tour hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), with sad eyes that King finds herself falling right into. Seriously, the scene where the two meet is as hot as anything you’ll see onscreen this year, and Marilyn is only giving Billie Jean a comb-out.
With the rocky establishment of the Slims tour, Billie Jean’s grappling with her sexuality (Austin Stowall plays her gracious, befuddled husband, Larry King), and Riggs yapping away on the sidelines, “Battle” piles a lot on its plate — too much, arguably, even if the filmmakers keep everything gliding on track toward the climactic contest. The movie’s an extended crowd scene with two solo turns at its center.
One is about a talented clown making as much noise as possible to disguise his smallness. The other is about a shy, determined woman — with her quiet wit and wire-rimmed glasses, Stone makes King the consummate tennis nerd — trying to define herself personally and professionally (and, given the times, politically) while standing in a blinding spotlight.
Many of the film’s brush strokes are broad: Alan Cumming as team uniform designer Ted Tinling offering you-go-girl support from the gay bench, or Australian pro Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) fulminating against the “sin” of King’s not-so-secret tour romance with Barnett before losing to Riggs in the first “battle of the sexes.” (Her loss forced King’s hand, or so the movie tells it.)
But Dayton and Faris convince us it was a broadly drawn time, from the woeful fashion choices to the rigid sexual attitudes. By the time we finally get to the match between Riggs and King, held on Sept. 20, 1973, in the Houston Astrodome, we understand how immense a circus the contest had become, and how much that circus said about America. To hear the sportscasting establishment of the day describe professional women athletes in the most demeaning terms imaginable — to see the great Howard Cosell drape his arm around Casals during their play-by-play like a creepy uncle (the film digitizes Morales into the actual footage) — is to bluntly grasp the greater game being played out.
Who won? If you were alive at the time, you know; if you don’t know, there’s Google or this movie, which keeps the suspense ticking along nicely. The chalk lines in “Battle of the Sexes” stretch into the past and future, measuring how far we’ve come since then and how far we have to go. At the center is a tennis court and two figures vying and a polarized culture hanging on the match point.
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue. At Boston Common, Fenway, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 121 minutes. PG-13 (some sexual content, partial nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow hom on Twitter @tyburr.