BATTLE OF THE SEXES vs. I, TONYA
Over this past week I was able to watch two films that I had been eagerly awaiting to see since their trailers had come out, and they are Battle of the Sexes and I, Tonya. I’m going to be upfront and say I am tennis player, or I used to be one. Although I don’t play two to three hours a day anymore, the game will always hold a dear place in my heart. Needless to say, I was looking forward to seeing Battle of the Sexes a million times more than I, Tonya, but what I came away with after watching I, Tonya last night was that it blew Battle of the Sexes out of the water. To be totally honest, I hadn’t even thought about comparing the two until seeing both so closely together. It then became obvious that these movies had the potential to be very similar.
The best way I can compare the two is to say that Battle of the Sexes is like having a vanilla milkshake: It’s good, because it’s still a milkshake. I, Tonya, though, is like a Reese’s peanut butter shake: It’s an overwhelming taste sensation and a treat that when it’s gone, makes you wish you ordered the bigger size. Meaning, Battle of the Sexes is disappointing and I, Tonya is so much more than I ever wanted.
Here’s why Battle of the Sexes fell short of my expectations:
A story about Billie Jean King shouldn’t feel like another run of the mill film about a significant event in sports history and a legendary player. It’s too easy to make that kind of movie. I’m not going to say that everything about this film was terrible. I’ll give credit where credit is due. The tennis action sequences are excellently done. They make you root for Billie Jean King to demolish Bobby Riggs all over again. Emma Stone and Steve Carell do close to spot on impressions of the two. Although this film may have been a good showcase for Emma Stone and Steve Carell’s acting abilities, I don’t feel it tapped into the full potential a story such as this one contains. The few times when this film does excel is when the focus is on Billie Jean’s struggle to gain the respect for women’s tennis that the sport deserves, or when it is giving us a well-rounded view of Bobby Riggs’ character. As amazing as Steve Carell is at playing Bobby Riggs, I’m not certain we needed his character's whole background story, but overall, Riggs’ story arc is all well and good with me because it feels authentic. It also accomplishes making me pity his character instead of flat out despising him. This leads me to the film’s major flaw and that is that a good chunk of the movie was taken up by lackluster plot lines; the most bothersome of which is the love storyline. Do I feel Billie Jean King’s sexuality, which plays an eventual role in her being a pioneer for LGBT rights, is an important aspect of her life? Absolutely. Am I so sure that it contributed to this particular story as a whole? I’m not convinced, and that may be solely due to that specific plot line feeling forced. The dialogue even sounds generic in these scenes. In a way, it makes the film feel disjointed, as if it isn’t sure which story to tell at times. If these scenes were made to feel natural, maybe I would have been fine with them. It just seems that they could have been cut down or replaced to make room for more valuable ones.
Seeing I, Tonya didn’t help me feel any less let down by Battle of the Sexes. In fact, it only seemed to aggravate my disappointment. Everything that feels plain and forced about the storytelling of Battle of the Sexes is the opposite with I, Tonya. I, Tonya takes a story a large portion of the general public has witnessed in their lifetime and shows a different side of it. Its characters are vivid and even if they are exaggerated, their “larger than life” quality gives us something we can feel, ‘touch', and understand. Instead of simply telling the story in a typical mockumentary form, I, Tonya takes that method of storytelling to a whole new level and uses techniques, I for one haven’t seen before, in the most brilliant, fun, and ingenious ways. Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney aren’t walking impersonations of the characters they play. They are these characters. In scenes that haven’t been documented in reality and we’re unsure if they actually occurred, are the times when Margot Robbie shines the brightest and brings another dimension to the role. This film accomplishes showing possibly one of the most villainized people in fairly recent American history in a sympathetic light. We don’t know if the narrator is reliable, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. All that matters is we learn Tonya Harding is a human being with a story of her own to tell.
When it comes down to it, Battle of the Sexes will never stand a chance against I, Tonya. Battle of the Sexes is simple. In many ways it’s a recap of past events. A story shouldn’t be made into a film on the basis of it being a profound moment in history alone. It needs to show us a perspective we haven’t entirely seen already. It needs to make us feel. I, Tonya does, and does so creatively.