Hollywood filmmakers can always find a dozen different rationales — integrity, naked sellout, treading water — for choosing their next project. So how, exactly, does one account for the careers of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris? In 2006, the married co-directors of television commercials and fatally hip music videos (R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Macy Gray, The Smashing Pumpkins) made their first feature film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” at which point they took possession of the buzz, the money, and the known movie universe.
The picture was adored by audiences — first at the Sundance Film Festival, and then, in the late summer, when it was released in theaters by Fox Searchlight. Critics, by and large, gave it their imprimatur of affection and acclaim. (I hated the movie, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) The awards love then followed suit: four Oscar nominations (for best picture, best original screenplay, best supporting actor, best supporting actress) and two wins (for screenplay and supporting actor). “Little Miss Sunshine” made $59 million at the domestic box office, which is major for an independent hit, but beyond the numbers the film was the definition of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too crossover crowd-pleaser: a comedy that struck enough of a chord to be thought of by many of as an instant classic.
Dayton and Faris were, at that point, sitting in the catbird seat. They had attained that special place of popularity and power that most filmmakers can only dream of. And then? Then they took all of that beautiful mojo and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with it.
I don’t say that harshly, or judgmentally. I’m citing the historical record, and I actually respect the fact that they didn’t strike while the iron was hot in some cliché take-it-to-the-next-level way. (Among the high-octane franchise junk they turned down: “The Mod Squad” and “Bad Boys II.”) But what a weirdly curious non-second act! “Little Miss Sunshine” was followed by years of dithering tales of the projects that Dayton and Faris tried, and failed, to get off the ground, and I won’t bore you with recounting the litany of them. (Okay, here are two: an adaptation of Tom Peretta’s “The Abstinence Teacher,” which had Sandra Bullock attached, and a sci-fi comedy called “Used Guys,” set at the time to star Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon.)
Even with “Little Miss Sunshine” under their belts, the two couldn’t settle upon a follow-up movie, and they seemed almost addicted to exiting projects due to creative differences. They continued to earn their keep directing commercials, and six years later they came out with their second feature, the wee and whimsical “Ruby Sparks” (written by its co-star, Zoe Kazan), a rotely infectious little romantic-comedy fantasy starring Paul Dano as a young novelist who literally creates, on the typewritten page, his new girlfriend. The movie went nowhere (total domestic gross: $2.5 million). Then they waited another five years.
Their third feature is “Battle of the Sexes,” the new movie that re-enacts the legendary feminist-vs.-male-chauvinist stunt-that-wasn’t-really-a-stunt tennis match of 1973, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It may have taken a long time, but all I can say is that this movie was worth the wait. It establishes the Dayton-Faris team, at long last, as a world-class filmmaking voice. “Battle of the Sexes” isn’t just pretty good. It’s that good.
But first, a word on why some of us couldn’t stand “Little Miss Sunshine.” At heart, it was a glib sitcom, with characters — Greg Kinnear’s cockeyed-optimist boob of a dad; Toni Collette’s saintly sourpuss mom; Paul Dano’s pouty teen, who’s decided not to speak for a year; and Alan Arkin’s an-obscenity-for-every-occasion badass grandpa — who were walking, talking collections of screenwriter index-card data. But there are a lot of movies like that. “Little Miss Sunshine” had laughs, and a certain spring-wired cleverness, but the thing that was profoundly irritating about it is that the characters were saddled with just enough plastic angst that the movie kept signposting its sham authenticity. The baby-doll beauty pageant at the end was despicable: a scene in which the filmmakers managed to condescend to everyone who’d ever participated in one of those contests, even as they treated their 7-year-old heroine as a saintly princess who resorted to the very same tricks to beat the Middle American trash dreamers at their own game.
Okay, enough! “Little Miss Sunshine” is a beloved movie, and there’s a small club of us who will always see it as a fake. But it thrills me to say that “Battle of the Sexes” is cut from a very different cloth. In theory, at least, it should be a light comic docudrama, since the fabled match that took place between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973, in the Houston Astrodome is remembered as a high-camp sweepstakes, all built around Riggs’ ahead-of-his-time acumen as a media hustler. (He came out onto the Astrodome field advertising Sugar Daddy taffy sticks.)
The surprise of “Battle of the Sexes,” though, is what an earnest and emotional movie it is. Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King doesn’t have a blithe bone in her body. She’s valiant and driven and romantically naïve, and the forces she’s up against have almost nothing to do with Bobby Riggs. They’re people like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the tennis impresario who deigned to pay women tennis champions just 15 percent of what men made — not to mention the whole wide world of conventional fame that will not accept a Billie Jean King who reveals her true sexual identity. It’s so hidden that she’s hidden it from herself.
Those sound like classic liberal themes, and they are, but the beauty of “Battle of the Sexes” is that Dayton and Faris, working on a higher wire than they have before, recreate the fertile, shifting ground of the early ’70s with extraordinary dexterity. Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”), they show us how the piggish attitudes were woven right into a culture of “liberation,” and they humanize everyone on screen, from Emma Stone’s outwardly tough, touchingly vulnerable Billie Jean to the winsome but sharp-tongued Los Angeles hairdresser (played by the terrific Andrea Riseborough) she falls for to Carell’s Bobby Riggs, a devoted gambler — his speech to a 12-step group is hilariously unapologetic — who’s less an agent of male tyranny than a doofus catalyst.
Stone’s Billie Jean just wants to play tennis and be the person she is. But simply to do that, she has to take on the machinery of a male establishment that’s still putting women in boxes. It’s there in the most casual remarks by sportscasters, and in the fact that women’s tennis is considered to be a less exciting sideshow. Can a woman beat a man at tennis? By the time the match arrives, that kitsch-gladiatorial issue has been freighted with a far greater question: Can a woman live with the same freedom and power that men take for granted?
That sounds like a dated question, but what gives it a thrilling relevance is that Dayton and Faris immerse us in the texture of a pop-cultural moment, and have enough faith in the audience to know that we’ll make the connection between that moment and our own. All movies, even historical ones, are on some level about the time in which they’re made. In “Battle of the Sexes,” the third-wave feminism of the early ’70s becomes a touchstone for the struggles of our own era: yes, the battles for equal pay that still have yet to be won — but more that than, the war against the very concept of hierarchy. It dies hard, and is always shrouded in “normalcy.”
The movie reveals Billie Jean King to be a crusader precisely because she was never invested in seeing herself that way. And it’s that double vision that defines the filmmakers’ newfound emotional breadth. It’s enough to make you wonder if the real reason that Dayton and Faris have taken so long between projects is that they felt torn, like Hamlet, between conflicting beliefs: to make another piece of fake sunshine, or to make something real. They’ve now made the right choice.