King Richard is a movie about the ends justifying the means. It’s a movie about bootstraps and hard work and outsiders overcoming odds through persistence. It’s also one about cherry-picking, hypocrisy and smoothed edges. But it barrels through those parts. Doesn’t let them stick. As we learn, the movie is a lot like Richard that way. Its incurious approach to telling the making-of story behind two of history’s most dominant athletes, tennis titans Venus and Serena Williams going from Compton to Wimbledon, sadly fits the expectation when it comes to authorized biopics. Though director Reinaldo Marcus Green finds winning performances away from his lead, the milquetoast script serves the tennis patriarch a soft lob—one without potential to inspire or excite, and one that’s constantly reminding us that we already know how it ends.
It’s hard to generate too much lasting conflict around the young careers of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) when their place in the record books is so firmly and recently established. It’s never a question of “Will this all work out?” no matter how many doubters or environmental obstacles screenwriter Zach Baylin puts in their father’s way. That there’s not much else to the film—no insight into the pair or their family, aside from the rah-rah Richard show—explains why it all feels so lifeless. At its core is Will Smith’s portrayal of Richard Williams, obsessive and confident father of Venus and Serena (as well as many others whose abilities apparently didn’t inspire him to create/devote his life to a meticulous plan for their careers), which is well-researched, consistent and feels as much like a costume as his tiny little ‘80s short-shorts.
Smith certainly isn’t bad, as his charm is best deployed with a heaping helping of feather-ruffling swagger, but because his character feels like it exists in a vacuum from relationships and (sometimes) reality, it always feels like it’s on a different plane than the rest of the film. This is part of the point. He’s supposed to be endearingly stubborn, but because everyone he’s around ranges from surprisingly amenable—douchey talent agents—to nearly saintlike—his long-suffering wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis)—he just comes off as an annoyance that the script shackles its characters from acknowledging, even subconsciously. This is a mistake. A pair of strong supporting coach performances (Tony Goldwyn, serious and strict; Jon Bernthal, a coke-and-mustache cartoon still able to pull off paternal concern) act alternatively as wholesome audience surrogates to Richard’s increasingly frustrating decisions and as idiot foils proving time and time again that his single-mindedness always, always pays off.
Because they’re so deeply linked to the careers of Venus and Serena, moving them to a different state or determining what tournaments they’ll take part in, these coaches are far deeper characters than the rest of the Williams family. The young actors, including the handful of other sisters, are all charismatic and at their best when they’re moving as a rambunctious herd. Galloping through the house or riffing in a stuffed car, the gaggle of siblings are as charming, chaotic and realistic as anything in the movie. Fittingly, they’re not given much attention. King Richard isn’t about the girls. They aren’t characters, but props for the Will Smith Oscar Machine, much as—it seems—they were props for Richard Williams’ ego. He’s the one who sacrifices everything for their practices. He’s the one getting beaten up by local thugs. Every incident is so dead-set on showing his hardship that when Venus and Serena actually take the court, you’re a little shocked it’s not Richard holding the racket, CGI’d into their place.
Standing out amidst the disappointing disinterest is Ellis, who’s fantastic in the few scenes she’s allowed space to act. In one of the strangest and least fitting scenes of the film, Brandy finally lets Richard have it for being such a myopic, credit-taking dick, with Ellis embodying dignity as emotions bubble over. The scene teases us mercilessly with dangled righteous comeuppance—an emotional catharsis that never comes. But Ellis even makes this disappointment work in her favor, as weariness slowly pries her indignation open into a bare-minimum embrace. That this scene leads to nothing, and ends with that half-assed hug, is indicative of a checked-over and approved script that feels even more dishonest by letting these toothless critiques immediately fade, its women too thinly drawn for such sustained or developed detail.
Some of the tennis itself is interesting (especially since Sidney and Singleton are fun to watch zip across the court and actually play the game well), though many of Green’s shot choices and cuts during the matches are frustratingly light on information or artistry. Returning too often to Richard in the middle of a tense match saps excitement, just as cuts to the ping-ponging heads of spectators or to silent family members add needless hitches to the pace. It’s a miscalculation of what’s visually engaging (sports) and what’s not (people watching sports), but on a deeper level, it’s a lack of faith from Green. His movie makes it painfully clear that it’s about Richard and not Venus or Serena. Why should he doubt that we’re thinking about these matches from Richard’s point of view?
The best and longest match, which sees Serena in her tournament debut against established hot-shot Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, is mainly delivered via closed circuit TV or at an angle directly behind Vicario. You can see Sidney slapping the fuzz off that ball, but you get no perspective on the action, no context for her desperate sprints and expert angles, no tension from whether she’ll land her shots in-bounds or not. The joy from watching the sport itself is almost entirely absent, with salt rubbed in the wound thanks to an ending montage that includes real clips from tennis matches shot by professionals—with every highlight reminding you over and over that, oh, right, people know how to film this thing.
King Richard doesn’t shy away from these unflattering comparisons. The by-the-numbers film foolishly ends with that biopic flourish to prove how real everything was: A montage of home video footage where everyone looks similar and says and does similar things, but have so much more life than their professional counterparts. And that’s where you get to the difference between the real and the true. Sure, everything in King Richard is probably true. A few things might be embellished and filmmaking may have condensed some events. But because of its myopic perspective, its aggrandizing and glossing insistence that it was all equally worth it in the end, it consigns everything and everyone around its core to the fringes. And that means none of it seems real.
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Writers: Zach Baylin
Stars: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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