Battle of the Sexes, Victoria & Abdul Reenact Petty Wars

Battle of the Sexes is unconcerned with equity in life, sports, or art. This overlong, half-comic rewriting of the history of the 1973 tennis stunt between Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is so heavily slanted toward the goal of advancing feminism that it neglects to offer a humanely balanced portrait of the players.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a husband-wife team, were also behind the trite Little Miss Sunshine, and they continue their heinous, calculated exploitation of trendy, sentimental gender politics here. Riggs’s avuncular brashness is overplayed in the depiction of his gambling addiction and chauvinist clowning, but King is portrayed as a noble, closeted lesbian. Their eventual tennis match — controversial mostly because it is now suspected that Riggs threw it (unshown in the movie) — was less predictable than the filmmakers’ ideological con game: Faris, Dayton, and screenwriter Sean Beaufoy all but canonize King, romanticizing her homosexual identity (King opens up during a relationship with a TV hairdresser, played by Andrea Reisborough). Why isn’t Meryl Streep mimicking this part?

Storytelling like that in Battle of the Sexes isn’t “crowd-pleasing” in the sense of uplifting people; instead, it’s stridently agenda-driven. While pretending to balance Stone’s toothy grin with Carell’s goofish boyishness, the filmmakers forego evenhanded humanism. They’re really unthinking cynics who take insultingly obvious positions on male privilege and female oppression. Over-obviousness was also the major fault when screenwriter Beaufoy simultaneously glamorized poverty and greed in Slumdog Millionaire, the worst film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture until Spotlight.

Watching recent Oscar-winner Stone bring her unprepossessing tomboy persona to King’s plucky, bespectacled homeliness, while Carell continues to mistake foolish caricature for characterization (as in the vile Foxcatcher) creates a battle of oddballs. It epitomizes Hollywood’s Left-warped, identity-politics reduction of what is human. Though giving lip-service to the idea of pay equity in the scene where King argues about money with sports entrepreneur Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the scheme degrades men as testosterone-loaded boors. This isn’t even an ideological battle. Women are heroized; men demeaned as doofuses. The two sexes are set in the cement of progressive ideology.

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*****


Victoria & Abdul offers a more interesting match-up between England’s longest-ruling monarch and an Indian clerk dragooned to present the royal with tributes from the colony. They don’t become maudlin besties as in Driving Miss Daisy but are ready-made symbols of the confounding relations between the British empire and its colonized subjects. Their mutual respect and admiration feel outdated, yet the lead actors Judi Dench and Ali Fazal both impart a humane consciousness that challenges the usual post-colonial blame game.

Their equalizing exchange (Abdul’s cultural knowledge trades with Victoria’s noblesse oblige) returns them both to their peoples’ roots and to the essence of human sympathy. That is, until the film indulges in political gestures as mechanical as a rigged tennis match: Special emphasis is put on Abdul’s religious identity; he’s a Muslim begging acceptance by the West. This over-obvious metaphor ruins the film’s momentarily fable-like vision — what Spielberg hinted at during the diverting Buckingham palace sequence of The BFG.

Lead actors Judi Dench and Ali Fazal both impart a humane consciousness that challenges the usual post-colonial blame game.

Abdul’s colleague issues predictable political rationales: “These people are the exploiters of a quarter of mankind,” and “they are oppressors of the entire subcontinent.” And the Queen insists, “I can take a Muslim wherever I like.” These cynical statements limit appreciation of the ambiguous cross-cultural complexity in this fact-based tale.

When Victoria’s friendship with Abdul upsets protocol and faces pushback, a startling modern parallel occurs: This resistance stems from an outwitted group’s inveterate classism and racism, and from their desperation to maintain the status quo. Victoria loses the allegiance of her holdover staff. She’s called crazy. Revolt is plotted, even initiating a household coup. The lessons in Victoria & Abdul could be cautionary.

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The contempt that universities now teach about colonialism is designed to ignore a complicated response between ruler and subjugated. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall (adapting the Shrabani Basu novel) only half encourage the normalized class relations that modern progressives abhor. Interesting ironies of political domination are smothered by the harsh reality of unbridled racism, expressed by Victoria’s staff and her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and by such insultingly pointed irony as Victoria’s marveling at Abdul’s wife wearing a burqa: “I think it’s rather dignified.”

Frears isn’t sharp enough to prevent us from hearing that PC sentiment as an oppressor’s admiration for the quaint trappings of oppression. So he resorts to his recent fascination with scatology and venereal disease, as in Florence Foster Jenkins, last year’s most ghastly movie. Why isn’t Meryl Streep mimicking this part, too?

This film’s shameless two-sided political correctness creates a doubled sense of the movie legacy of the British Empire: Ali Fazal is a Will Smith type with gentle eyes; his engaging manner charms the bored, tired, old woman nicknamed “the Empress of India.” He responds to the England he’s only read about and to routine “racialist” insults with graciousness and amazement — during Abdul’s first experience of Winter, he’s awed at the frost from his breath. This childlike moment recalls the colonialist conundrum depicted in David Lean’s A Passage to India – that jolting moment when the abused Dr. Aziz (Victor Bannerjee) finally loses his graciousness; he acquires the sharp-eyed anger of a scorned revolutionary and becomes imposingly handsome. That bitterness is the ultimate indictment of Aziz’s dehumanizing experience and stronger than this film’s sanctimonious equivocations.

*****

Miranda Richardson totally disappears into the role of Boston Irish working-class mom Patty Bauman.

In Stronger, the ordinary view of the Boston Marathon bombing isn’t up to Patriots Day. But it does have a striking performance by the great Miranda Richardson — she totally disappears into the role of Boston Irish working-class mom Patty Bauman, who desperately supports her son, Jeff (Jake Gyllanhaal) after the blast grievously wounded him. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal plays the lead with one-note, ghoulish, internalized trauma, so Stronger lacks the powerful personal and cultural insight about American vulnerability, such as what Ang Lee saluted in his unacknowledged masterpiece Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Director David Gordon Green transfers the empathy he had for the southern working-class temperament, seen in his memorable debut film George Washington, to the Boston locale — a cultural shift that David O. Russell made successfully in The Fighter. Green’s view of Americans’ rough, uncultured perseverance in the face of Muslim extremist terrorism — set so close to Harvard elitism — is more credible than the low-class ethnic outrages in any Dennis Lehane–based movie. Yet Green doesn’t venture deeply enough into those qualities thought of as red-state humanism. But the amazing Richardson is raring to go there.

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Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.

 

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