Three recent movies—Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, and Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes—tell varied but entertaining stories of protagonists determined to break free of the constraints placed on them by society and circumstance.
Of the three, only Logan Lucky portrays behavior that would be actionable in a court of law. It is also the only one that purports to be pure fiction.
Logan Lucky can best be described as a down-home version of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies, which in turn were jokier, happier versions of The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing. (The Rat Pack Ocean’s Eleven is best avoided except by Sinatra completists.) Logan Lucky begins with Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a West Virginia mechanic and construction worker, getting laid off unfairly from his job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jimmy plans to serve up revenge as coldly as possible: with the help of his Iraq vet brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough), he will rob the speedway’s box office.
To do the job, the Logans require the services of the aptly named demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who unfortunately is serving a stretch in the state penitentiary. They need to break Joe out of prison for the day of the robbery and smuggle him back in without the egregious Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) noticing.
How they accomplish this, and how the heist goes down, I will leave for you to find out. I will just say that the story is shaggier than a battalion of Old English sheepdogs. Among other things, it includes an arrogant sports drink tycoon (Seth MacFarlane); a mobile medical clinician (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam); Joe’s dumber-than-dirt brothers Sam (Brian Gleeson, son of Brendan) and Fish (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis); a hard-nosed FBI agent (Hilary Swank); Clyde’s prosthetic left arm; and a Little Miss beauty pageant in which Jimmy’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) is a contestant. Topping it all is the Logan family curse, which Clyde brings up frequently and lugubriously.
Logan Lucky doesn’t set off any fireworks, but it is funny and likable in its easygoing way. The large cast is first-rate, with Craig and Driver the standouts, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Rebecca Blunt tie up the story’s loose ends with a flourish that will leave you smiling.
The Big Sick, on the other hand, will have you smiling through tears. Starring Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani and based on the semi-autobiographical screenplay by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick tells the story of a comic named Kumail Nanjiani and the pitfalls he faces in trying to chart the course of his own life.
Kumail is the son of Azmat (Anupam Kher) and Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff), Pakistanis who moved their family to Chicago when Kumail was a boy. The family regards itself as American, but that doesn’t mean Azmat and Sharmeen don’t expect Kumail to be a dutiful Pakistani son, especially when it comes to marriage. (They also drop broad hints about Kumail abandoning stand-up comedy in favor of law school.) Sharmeen is always delighted to have young Pakistani women “drop over” after dinner. Kumail is always less delighted. He promises his mother he’ll consider courting one of the young women, then throws their photographs in a cigar box in his apartment.
After one of his sets, Kumail meets Emily Gardner (Zoe Kazan), a young graduate student. What begins as a one-night stand becomes steadily more serious. Although Kumail wants to be with Emily, he can’t forget the strictures of his parents, who sternly remind him of the cousin disowned by the entire family for marrying a non-Pakistani.
Then, Emily finds the cigar box. Harsh words are exchanged, and Emily storms out, vowing never to see Kumail again.
Not long afterward, Kumail gets a shocking phone call from one of Emily’s friends: Emily has a severe lung infection, and must be placed in a medically induced coma to ensure her survival. Emily’s parents can’t make it to the hospital in time, so could Kumail sign the permission form?
Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), are less than happy to see Kumail at the hospital: Emily had told them all about the breakup. They tell him he can leave, but Kumail insists on staying. The rest of The Big Sick concerns the consequences of Kumail’s decision, as he gets to know Emily’s parents and join them in making decisions regarding Emily’s treatment. His own parents, meanwhile, turn against him when they find out about Emily.
This synopsis makes The Big Sick sound incredibly grim, but it is anything but. Kumail’s wry observations about his family life and the comedy scene keep the chuckles coming, as do the supporting players. Hunter and Romano are both funny and touching as a couple with issues of their own, as are Kher and Shroff as a couple for whom family and tradition are inseparable. Kazan has great chemistry with Nanjiani in her early scenes, and she is moving in her later scenes, trying to come to terms with a bewildering, near-fatal series of events.
As for Nanjiani, he is delightful playing a slightly tweaked version of himself. He is hilarious in a comic meltdown with a fast-food worker who can’t understand Kumail’s very simple order. He also aces a significant acting test in a scene where he fails an important audition: instead of his routine, he can only talk about his fears for Emily.
The Big Sick is for the most part a comedy, but it deals forthrightly with some of the most important issues humans ever face: love, death, disappointment, remorse, atonement. As a Judd Apatow production, it has its bawdy moments, but its delicacy is what you will remember.
“Delicacy” is not the right word for Battle of the Sexes, but it too provides an effective mix of laughter and sorrow in presenting one of the most ballyhooed sporting events of all time: the Sept. 20, 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell).
From the hindsight of 44 years, it’s possible to dismiss that match as a reality-TV stunt that led to ever more ruinous reality-TV happenings, up to and including the election of Donald Trump. The entire event smacks of Riggs, a compulsive gambler and shameless huckster who bet high stakes on matches in which he used a frying pan as a racquet or dressed as Little Bo-Peep, complete with live sheep. But for King, the “Battle of the Sexes” was something far more serious, and it turned out to have deep reverberations throughout society.
As Dayton, Faris and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy make plain, sexism was taken absolutely for granted in the 1970s. (It still exists today, of course, but in those days it was considered radical simply to mention its existence.) At the film’s beginning, King is arguing fruitlessly with Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, to give women players equal prize money with men. Kramer, who has a permanent condescending smirk on his face, insists that women can’t play as well as men or draw crowds like men. “It’s just biology,” he says. Incensed, King decides on the spot to create a women-only pro tour.
Meanwhile, Riggs is looking for any way he can to support his gambling habit—a habit that has his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) ready to kick him out. One of the film’s funniest scenes has Riggs at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting at Priscilla’s insistence, only to start lecturing the other attendees about learning how to gamble better.
More out of desperation than anything else, Riggs comes up with the “Battle of the Sexes” concept as a way to earn big money. Being the hustler he is, he pumps up the volume on his male chauvinism. “I love women—in the bedroom and the kitchen!” he declares to squadrons of reporters.
Riggs first invites King to play him; she is insulted, and rejects the offer out of hand. But when Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee as a snippy, self-righteous prude) beats King in a crucial match and becomes the world’s top-seeded woman player, Riggs invites Court to play him. She accepts, and Riggs mops the tennis court with her. Court’s loss gives King a point to prove, leading to the legendary match.
Battle of the Sexes, as Slate points out, telescopes some of the historical events but is generally accurate as to facts. It is absolutely true to the details of the match, including the ritual exchange of the giant Sugar Daddy and the piglet. However, the events leading up to the match are what give the movie its impetus. The story might have been trimmed here and there, but we become totally engrossed in the characters of King and Riggs. They are fascinating, as written and as played by Stone and Carell.
Billie Jean King is probably the most complex character Stone has played to date, and like King at the time of Battle of the Sexes, Stone is at the top of her game. This was an anguished time in King’s life; not only was she fighting sexism in her sport, but she was starting to recognize her true sexual identity, as revealed in the presence of a willowy blonde hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). King is still half in love with her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), but she cannot deny the unique and wonderful thrill she feels in Marilyn’s presence. That she was able to deal with these pressures and remain a champion is lasting testimony to King’s character. Stone is masterful at showing both King’s vulnerability and the steel beneath it.
Bobby Riggs is very much within the range of odd ducks Carell usually plays. Carell is hilarious careening around the screen like a live-action Tasmanian Devil, but he is equally deft at showing the sorrow and insecurity that motivated Riggs. The Slate article points out what the movie doesn’t—that part of Riggs’ grandstanding was because of his frustration that World War II cut short his professional career. But the movie didn’t have to reveal that. Riggs’ neediness and neuroticism, as revealed by Carell, tell us all we need to know.
Battle of the Sexes is stuffed with memorable supporting performances, especially an Oscar-worthy turn by Sarah Silverman as King’s brash, chain-smoking agent Gladys Heldman. But Stone and Carell are the winners in this particular match.
Dayton, Faris and Beaufoy leave us in no doubt of the historical importance of the match between King and Riggs. King’s friend and teammate Rosie Casals summed it up on a recent broadcast of the NPR program 1A. After the match, she said, there was much more prize money for women players, much more media attention, many more people in the stands.
At its end, Battle of the Sexes ties things up a little too neatly; for instance, the movie doesn’t tell us that women players at Wimbledon did not achieve parity with men until 2007. However, the film is an entertaining lesson in how a seemingly trivial event can bring lasting empowerment.