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Well, you’ve got to be pretty brave to take a ride in a pumpkin.

King Richard
(2021)

(SPOILERS) Raves over a biopic should always be taken with a pinch of salt, so it ought to be little surprise that the initial raptures greeting King Richard have lost momentum. In part, this simply reflects public indifference upon its release, but it also testifies to a creatively moribund genre. Every so often, a biopic in whichever field – sports, music, business – breaks the standard mould and justifies the genre’s existence. More generally, they follow a determinedly literal course – whilst simultaneously playing fast and loose with the facts – one that leads to an approach of shapeless, sprawling, unfocussed, potted “lifelights”. Even when a chunk, rather than the whole journey, is depicted, it tends to be the same in capsule form. King Richard is closer to the latter, dealing with Richard Williams’ coaching and brokering of his famous daughters’ tennis careers from their ages of 11-14, or thereabouts; unfortunately, the results are as indulgent and undisciplined as they would have been tackling his/their entire careers.

There’s a question, of course, as to whether making this all about Richard was the best move at all. It might not have mattered either way, in terms of public relations, since Richard’s rep and the sisters’ volatility has won them as much criticism as veneration (if not more), but there’s at least something extra to dig into with the actual athletes. Unsurprisingly then, while there’s significant screen time for Serena (Demi Singleton) and particularly Venus (Saniyya Sidney), this is all about Will Smith and his Oscar-bid star turn as Richard.

As soft-pedalled as the portrait is – it was made with the Williams family’s approval, and no doubt tasty contributions to their kitty – there’s little chance you’ll come away viewing him as some kind of hero. Indeed, any epilogue information about Richard’s achievements via his daughters’ achievements has to be bound to the premise that prowess and fame and money are everything, and that they are, inherently, better people thanks to his efforts. And surely, however the sisters may profess to feel about their careers, no one – certainly not the makers – is going to claim Richard’s intention, per the Cinderella scene, that they should be humble, no matter how people treat them, paid off. Not when even John McEnroe called them sore losers with bad attitudes.

I won’t claim to have followed the sisters’ careers closely or have more than a passing interest in tennis, so as far as King Richard’s accuracy is concerned, I have no strong beef. I tend to the view – with the caveat that I allow myself exceptions based on personal preferences or bugbears – that fidelity to the record shouldn’t interfere with making a good movie, and the two can even be at complete loggerheads. Assuming you can trust the record in the first place.

So I’m not too concerned the movie is making out Richard was scrimping and saving more than he was (he had his own security company in Compton with more than fifty employees). Nor that it fails to admit living in Compton was other than a lifestyle choice (he attested it would toughen them up). Or the claim that his training methods always put them first, to the extent of keeping them out of junior tournaments, as he was entirely concerned with their welfare… and yet, he bussed in schoolkids to shout abuse at his practising daughters. Apparently, even Compton gang members blanched at his relentless, workhorse treatment of Venus and Serena.

All those omissions may let him off the hook, yet the occasions where you side with Richard, even with Smith pulling the easy-charm act, are few and far between. He just will not shut up when seasoned coaches are trying to teach his daughters. He serially disregards his wife (Aunjanue Ellis) when it comes to decisions (“You made a fool out of me!” she yells). She’s given a much-needed kitchen-reckoning scene where she tells him a few home truths (“Unlike you, I don’t need the world to tell me I’m great”). Which obviously has no effect. We also wonder how his other children fare, and more still “All your other kids” (he’s been described by one of his abandoned children as a wandering sperm donor). Given flamboyant showman Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) acedes to Richard’s demands of bringing the entire family along to the girls’ Florida training, he is then understandably unimpressed to discover the rules have changed (“We’re not playing no more tournaments”). Although, it’s clearly Macci seeing the long-term revenues that leads to him acquiescing. Basically, though, Richard comes across as an asshole.

If there’s nothing very noteworthy about Zach Baylin’s screenplay (his first produced), neither is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s direction especially persuasive. That may be what you want from this kind of fare – the director to get out of the way – but it adds to the sense King Richard is a somewhat pedestrian promo effort that had no business being two-and-a-half hours long. Nothing here justified a movie more than a hundred minutes. Kris Bowers’ score is also undemanding, turning up the aspirational quirk.

The initial talk of King Richard as a prime awards contender is no longer what it was, although it seems Smith is still on the table for a Best Actor nom. We’re two decades on from his Ali glory days, and his perf is fine, but nothing to get worked up over (equally, the suggestion it’s a Stepin Fetchit approximation is a tad unfair). Whether he would welcome the attention an Academy spotlight might shine is another matter. Not so much because of his rumoured closeted lifestyle, which has, after all, been percolating for decades, but rather the hotter-button issue of his also-rumoured, less-than-jabbed-up status (that it didn’t come up with the Golden Globes is likely because the Globes have been symbolically, if not actually, cancelled themselves).

Rumour and intrigue are ripe for such a picture, perhaps. There’s a sense with the Williams story that it’s asking you to believe it because it’s so unbelievable. Take it at face value, because it’s flaunting just how unlikely the circumstances are. And since this is just sports – rather than global politics or sanctioned plandemics, we’re talking common-or-garden entertainment – there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t just be an extraordinary story.

As Kevin Dunn’s Vic Braden attests early on, “It’s like asking somebody to believe that you’ve got the next two Mozarts living in your house” (there’s a suggestion that no way was Mozart the prodigy he was made out to be, if there actually was a “Mozart”, which is neither he nor there with regard to Amadeus, a genuinely masterful “biopic”). What are the chances someone who claims “I wrote me a 78-page plan for their whole career before they was even born” and “I’m in the champion-raising business” would go on to do precisely that? Times two. Maybe Richard has his own handlers. It’s perhaps no wonder claims both sisters are actually transgender sports stars circulate (is it a coincidence Richard kept them from the public eye during puberty?) Of course, the life of the amateur transvestigator is a fraught one, much like Haley Joel Osment’s “I see dead people”.

At one point, Will professes “This world ain’t never had no respect for Richard Williams, but they going to respect you all”. Which is untrue; from the point I realised who he was, I had the utmost respect for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Casino Royale and The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Amongst others. If King Richard was trying to float respect due for all parties, it singularly fails to in its remit. I don’t believe it’s seriously asking us to question the value of the girls’ success, but the net result is that we do. Is Richard’s achievement commendable? Would they be better without the stresses and fame? Did they really have a choice, having been indoctrinated with success? King Richard’s coronation is iffy at best.


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