Film review by Jason Day of Battle of the Sexes, an account of the real-life battle between tennis champs Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Sycamore Pictures/Walsh Company/OddLot Entertainment/What Just Happened (12A)
Producers: Tom Walsh, Kevin J. Walsh.
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash.
Camera: John Bailey.
Music: Rob Simonsen.
Sets: Mark Ricker.
Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Liam James, Rob Corddry, Amanda Peet.
Shy and awkward teenager Duncan (James) is happy on the outside, preferring to hang around his Mother’s (Collette) apartment rather than mixing with his peers. That all changes one summer when they go on holiday with her over-bearing boyfriend Trent (Carell) who delights in denigrating and emasculating him. A chance bike ride to the local water theme park and meeting manager Owen (Rockwell) and his dysfunctional staff sees him getting a summer job that will change his outlook on life forever.
Just as the British summer ends (and it’s been a great one for once), the indie side of Hollywood gives us a blissfully funny holiday comedy to help ease us into the winter months. This is a film to settle into your sofa, possibly nestle into a loved one, and wait for the belly laughs to spring forth.
A slow-burner, you’ll probably want to walk out of the theatre during the first 30 minutes as we concentrate on getting to know some superficially horrible people in a serious family drama. This first third of the film is protracted a little too much to engage you as enjoyable character developement.
It all seems to going way, way back to nowhere until James meets Rockwell and the film suddenly jumps to life.
The comedy scores because it comes not from crudity or big pratfalls and slapstick action, but from the warm and inoffensive humour of the characters and their sweetly idosyncratic selves. The jokes can be a little silly, but are never immature, offensive or bodily part/function oriented. Quite a refreshing change considering the tone of most American blockbuster ‘laugh’ fests.
Rockwell has the best part as an adult who, if he wasn’t such a showman, is so laid back he would be in a coma. He is the focus of the kind of chilled laughs the film-makers are aiming for, but the film works on this level because of the quality of the ensemble acting as a whole. Apart from Janney, Collette is an affecting dramatic foil as an eternally hopeful romantic, Carell is quietly impressive as her manipulative, covert agressive lover, Rudolph as Rockwell’s patient girlfriend and especially Janney as the piss-head neighbour being a notable exception and forming the bridge to the laughs to come, her loud and indiscreet dialogue about her son’s lazy eye providing a delicious levity.
At the centre of these breezy larks is James, who is a little revelation as the directionless teen who finds a voice. It’s a performance that quietly impresses and the little things are actually what you notice most about this turn, such as the hunched over shoulders, jerky walk and difficulty maintaining eye contact for long. He’s the very embodiment of every shy and retiring teen boy, a champion of the hormonally challenged.
Director: David Frankel. Escape/Management 360/Mandate/MGM
Producer: Todd Black, Guymon Casady. Writer: Vanessa Taylor. Camera: Florian Ballhaus. Music: Theodore Shapiro. Sets: Stuart Wurtzel.
Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carel, Jean Smart, Ben Rappaport, Marin Ireland, Patch Darragh, Brett Rice, Elisabeth Shue, Mimi Rogers.
Kay (Streep) and Arnold (Jones) are a middle-aged couple having serious marital problems. They sleep in separate rooms and hardly speak, let alone touch or make love. At the end of her tether, Kay blows her savings on a week-long trip to a relationship counsellor (Carel) in Maine. Reluctantly, Arnold follows and the therapist delves deep into the most private and intimate details of their lives in a bid to help them.
Given the bright and breezy poster and how this has been promoted, one could be forgiven for leaving the cinema feeling slightly short-changed by Hope Springs.
Not that it isn’t a good film (it is), but when you are lead to expect a comedy drama, you kind of expect a few laughs. Director Frankel is the man behind many episodes of Sex and the City so you would expect a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Hope Springs, however, is a very sober examination of when the rot seeps in to an otherwise loving and devoted couple.
Side-stepping the lack of hilarity matter, on this level Hope Springs works extremely well as there is a trio of exceptional, quietly impressive performances.
Leading the way and almost waltzing away with the whole film is Streep. One expects excellence from this most actorly of actors and she delivers the goods with customary versatility as a mousy, passive aggressive type of middle-class wife who rediscovers her sexy self. She speaks in a calm voice, just above a whisper, the sort of woman who unconsciously fastens the buttons on her cardigan when the word sex is mentioned. This is a delicately detailed and precisely observed turn.
Jones, whose craggy, lived-in features are perfectly suited to play the boorish male menopausal, is up there with her. Like Streep, this is a performance of layers – the man at the end of the film is not the man we are initially presented with and his fears and phobias are given a generous airing thanks to his skilful underplaying.
Carel completes the superlative acting hat-trick as a trendy, right-on, talk it out therapist who needles the pair and gets under their skin with professional thoroughness.
Back to the laughs – well, hope springs indeed if you want any chuckles. The script definitely needed to be a bit gamier here. The players (especially Carel) are certainly capable of making you smile; indeed, when the writing gives them the opportunity, they jump at it and show how much further they could have pressed. But Frankel and writer Taylor stubbornly decide to play it straight and make this an “issues” movie only. No major calamities therefore, just something of a missed opportunity.