King Richard and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Well Concussion didn’t get him an Oscar, so now it’s time for Will Smith to get back on that horse and work his butt off in a drama to try and get the Academy’s attention! To me though, his movies where he went chasing that Oscar gold are some of his least interesting. I still need to see Ali at some point so perhaps that’s the exception that proves the rule, but for my money, his best work in recent years have been in his more action-heavy features like Gemini Man and Bad Boys For Life which on the surface seem like run of the mill popcorn flicks but have quite a bit of depth to them that allow Smith to really stretch those acting muscles. Sadly this doesn’t seem to be one of those as I’m pretty sure Serena and Venus didn’t moonlight as secret agents, but the trailers look promising and Smith is definitely putting his all into the role. Is this the film to finally get Will the award he’s been seeking, or is this just another piece of Oscar Bait Pablum that we’ll all forget about by next year? Let’s find out!!
Richard Williams (Will Smith) is the proud patriarch of the Williams family in Compton California. He has a loving wife (Aunjanue Ellis) as well as five daughters; two of whom are Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) who will become two of the greatest tennis players of all time. That’s not just me saying that because I know the history, that’s Richard’s plan from the day they were born; to teach them to be strong, smart, and well-rounded women, while also training them relentlessly to become tennis superstars. He has to knock on a lot of doors, ruffle a few feathers, and take on many jobs to keep this plan on track, but come hell or high water they WILL succeed and become the best there ever was! Of course, with such a narrowly focused vision, he’s bound to miss some things along the way; not just the people showing him the path to success, but his own family who are certainly behind this dream but are the last people to hear about what the next step in the plan is. Is this strong-willed approach from Richard just covering up his own insecurities about himself, or is the system so corrupt that he has to forge his own path for his girls? What will the tennis world do in response to these two out of nowhere prodigies showing up on the scene, and can Venus and Serena live up to the lofty expectations of their family? Are we sure this movie was written by Richard Williams himself? It just seems like something the character in this movie would end up writing.
Much like the movie it went up against last weekend, this is a movie that feels split right down the middle between a strong and well-crafted first half a back half that feels wonky and pandering. Where the Ghostbusters movie was pandering to fans at least, this seems to be pandering to exactly one guy, and the longer it went on the harder it was for me to get behind him and his journey. I mean let’s face it, they didn’t call this the Venus & Serena Story; they named it after Will Smith’s character and he remains the focus of the story even when it feels like we should be moving away from him. I mean sure, that is kind of the theme of the movie where his inability to let go proves to be stifling to his family, but there’s zero teeth to that message and it relies more on feel-good sentimentality than making a poignant about this person, the society that he came from, and the flaws that we can empathize with. It’s a puff piece for a few different people; Will Smith, the Williams sisters… I guess that one guy played by John Berenthal, and as a movie, it manages to do just enough things right that it’s not an overly tedious sit. That’s probably not the pull quote that they’ll want to use for Will Smith’s Oscar campaign, but I’ve certainly seen worse movies sway the Academy.
The movie’s merits pretty much begin and end with Smith’s performance and the supporting cast around him. I’m not familiar with the man he’s portraying, but he’s clearly put a lot of work into very specific affectations and mannerisms that a lifetime of experiences has created and has defined the way that people see him. The movie is at its best when he’s working hard for his family and is constantly having doors shut in his face as it connects you to his struggle and illustrates the very real issue of discrimination in certain sports. Even when he’s getting on his high horse and shouting histrionics, you know where it’s coming from and why he can’t simply accept his current circumstances or the half-measures that are thrown at him. The supporting cast playing his family helps a lot too, though they tend to be less rounded in their characterizations; especially Venus and Serena who rarely seem to express feelings beyond adulation and determination which only further confirms that this is not their movie but his. Still, for what they need to do to move the plot along, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton do their job quite well and it only strengthens Will’s performance.
Where the movie started losing me is when his ambition turned to ego, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as dramatic storytelling goes, but it’s handled and framed in an odd way. Imagine the movie as a relay race and Will Smith gets the baton to the end of his leg of it, but then decides that it’s now a three-legged race and won’t let the next person do their own thing. This could end up having a poignant message about having the strength to let go and trusting that those you love can handle themselves… but in order for that to be true there have to be some consequences for Will Smith’s selfish behavior. The fact is though, that he’s more or less vindicated in the movie by the talent of his daughters who essentially bail him out of whatever regret he could have felt for his lousy behavior. No matter what he does, he still holds all the cards and we can’t see the alternate timeline where he wasn’t overbearing and didn’t blow up opportunities for Venus and Serena. Just based on the history we know everything worked out fine in the end, so where’s the drama here? Perhaps if they had shifted focus entirely to the kids and we saw things from their perspective, but it’s still the Will Smith show in the second half so he remains the emotional core of the movie and at a certain point I just stopped liking him and stopped caring whenever he pulled obnoxious stunts. The second half is held up by a few things that keep it from dragging the entire movie down, mainly Jon Bernthal as a goofy and affable coach as well as the continued strong performances from the cast who play his family, but it felt like the movie had already hit its peak and was struggling to find a proper endpoint for the story.
If anyone out there in Hollywood is looking for my advice, focus a biopic on as singular an event as possible, because trying to fit someone’s life full of ups and downs, ebbs and flows, good decisions and bad ones, into a three-act structure is no easy tasks and a lot of biopics fail to make such a large story compelling. For this movie, the obvious comparison that I would make is to the film Battle of the Sexes which is about the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It may not have Will Smith’s big performance and it’s very much a WHITE FEMINISM movie, but the film avoids many of the pitfalls we find here. The plot centers on a singular event that anchors the themes of the movie, and in doing so more naturally fits into a three-act structure. Compare that to this as well as similar biopics that take a very broad view of its subject, and the whole thing feels kinda flabby without much of an ending to move towards. We do get something of an emotional climax for Smith’s character, but that’s a good twenty minutes before the movie ends as the whole thing shifts focus onto something that, in the grand scheme of things, is hard to really care about. The story of Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs was a culminating event; a flashpoint for the sport and a meaningful step forward in the continued fight for women’s rights. This movie tries to do something similar with Venus’s match against Arantxa Vicario, but the stakes don’t feel like they’re there and we know that this is merely the first step of a much longer journey as she and her sister will continue to make even more significant history after this. So why end the movie here? Well because it’s the first major tennis match either girl had, so it’s closest fit (chronologically speaking) to what the rest of the movie is about. Not exactly the highest stakes imaginable, especially since the movie frames a lucrative endorsement deal as the thing hanging in the balance, but you can’t exactly end a tennis movie on something other than tennis match, now can you!?
I don’t want to come down too negative on this because there were a lot of solid, well-made aspects to this, and while it got a bit long in the tooth with its bloated runtime, it was never truly boring. It seems like a bunch of talented people got together to tell a story that, from the outset, had some questions that needed answering and a few problems that needed ironing out. No one got around to fixing them, however, and no matter how much effort you put into the final product, the foundation is suspect and is holding everything else back. I don’t think it’s worth sitting in a theater to see, but thankfully Warner Bros is still putting movies on HBO Max which is the right place for it. Heck, if they cut into pieces and kept the story going for a while longer, you could have had a pretty excellent mini-series which seems more appropriate for such broad biopics such as this. I mean Will Smith couldn’t be nominated for Oscar if they did that, but still!