Sunday 6 March 2022

Movie Review: King Richard (2021)

A biographical sports drama, King Richard focusses on the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Celebrating perseverance, the film serves an equal number of winners and faults.

In the tough Compton neighbourhood of Los Angeles, security guard Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), a nurse, are raising five daughters. From before they were born, Richard planned professional tennis careers for daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Now the girls are approaching their teens and Richard desperately seeks a professional coach to help their development.

But the family's background, race, and limited financial means are not a natural fit with the tony world of club tennis. Through sheer persistence Richard eventually secures the services of celebrated coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), but only for Venus. Brandy compensates by taking a larger role in coaching Serena. Venus dominates at the junior level, but Richard decides on a new path, signing with coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) and relocating the family to Florida. Despite the world-class amenities, Richard cannot stop meddling in Venus' burgeoning career.

Despite a gallant effort, King Richard never overcomes the sense that the story is oriented towards the wrong character, twice removed. Venus Williams is a seven-time Grand Slam winner; her sister Serena is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time greatest tennis players. And yet here is a film where Venus is at best a tertiary character and Serena barely features.

The sisters are credited as executive producers, and the focus on their father's determination and positive influence is well-intentioned, but also embraces elements of a hagiography. The Zach Baylin script only tangentially makes mention of the man's many troublesome antics. Instead the intention is to showcase only the best attributes of a dedicated father, and with such limited ambitions, the running length of 145 minutes is inexcusable. 

The unexplained internal inconsistencies are not helpful. Richard turns over every stone to find the best possible coaches for Venus and Serena, and then proceeds to ignore the best advice he worked so hard to secure. This is vaguely justified in the context of a dad seeking a well-rounded education and protecting his daughters from burnout, but also presented as deceptive and ungrateful behaviour. 

Will Smith sinks into the role but is barely challenged and remains close to the same self-confident notes throughout. Aunjanue Ellis as Brandy is more nuanced, and contributes an undercurrent of steely resolve in a couple of key scenes. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is functional, and the tennis match staging is effective.

Thematically, King Richard chronicles the struggle to overcome humble origins, limited financial means, and Compton's reputation as a haven fot street violence. The challenge of raising five daughters in a tough environment propels the narrative, and the film's first half is stronger for it. Once the family relocates to Florida, the only remaining obstacle in Venus' path to success is Richard's obstinance. Perhaps unintentionally, the story drifts towards Venus achieving success despite Richard, and not because of him. 

An unpleasant odour of crass commercialism permeates the final act, and the value of a sponsorship contract is somehow placed on a higher pedestal than on-court achievement. King Richard is not meritless, just misdirected.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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