King Richard (2021)

I find myself torn between basic appreciation of the filmmaking craft of King Richard and utter annoyance at its awards-bait laziness. It’s the kind of movie that you begin forgetting before its runtime is even completed, and the bits you do remember give you a twinge of resentment that this was nominated for Best Picture.

King Richard’s story is the same beat repeated about sixteen times: Someone tells Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, that he must/cannot do something for the betterment of his daughters’ tennis career. Williams ignores that decree, and his daughters subsequently thrive, seemingly due to their father’s obstinacy.

There are a few minor variations on the structure (like a weird bit where Williams plans to kill someone who dies by gang warfare instead), but overall it’s an excessively tedious and repetitive affair, dragged out to The Devil’s Runtime of 2:25.

This is frustrating, in part, because the movie doesn’t seem to realize how repetitive it is, and plays each encounter as a big dramatic revelation that Williams follows his own path. I am imagining an alternate, more compelling version of this movie that plays with the idea of the uniformity of each story beat in some thoughtful way, perhaps with a nonlinear timeline; it would be a much better film.

There’s also something tone-deaf and repellent about the film’s theme that the antidote for systemic racism is for Black people to simply try harder and stubbornly go their own way, with no structural support. Maybe ten years ago this movie would have felt more of the times, but in 2021 it really put me off.

Despite my issues with the story and mindset feeding into this middlebrow slog, I must admit that it goes down very easy.

The acting ranges from solid to excellent. The movie is unquestionably a Will Smith awards delivery vehicle. He carries the film with star power and screen presence, though neither he nor the script can figure out how much of a jerk to make Williams.

Much more of a revelation is Saniyya Sidney playing young Venus Williams. She manages to capture with nuance the prodigy as a sweet, grounded kid who also is a fierce competitor. She makes it plausible that someone like Venus Williams could thrive in cutthroat professional sports.

King Richard also looks very pretty. It’s well-shot and colorful. The tennis scenes are seamless and realistic, edited with rhythm. I also love the period details of lower-middle class circa 1990. That Chrysler minivan with wood paneling gave me a blast of nostalgia.

The film also closes with a montage of real-life footage of the Williams sisters and their parents taking over the tennis world in the years following the movie. It’s the only moment of the film I felt remotely choked up or inspired.

So my brain is battling my heart a bit, here, as it’s a movie that left a sour taste in my mouth but is, beyond its story, rather well assembled. Let’s mark it a bit south of “Good.”

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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