Warner Brothers Pictures; Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Rated PG -13 (Brief Drug Material; A Sexual Reference; Some Violence; Strong Language); 146 minutes
Starts today at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia
“King Richard” isn’t really about tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams (the well-cast Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton), although they are central to the story. Rather, this is a film about the men (mostly, in this case) and women who watch from the wings, the ones whose obsessive commitment to forming and nurturing great athletic talent drives their lives
Richard Williams’ (Will Smith) single-minded passion is turning his two daughters into world-class tennis players, and he pushes them to their limits as their coach, father and supreme protector. Drills are run with a constant threat of neighborhood gang violence; practices are held rain or shine with no quarter given for pain, fatigue, or schoolwork. Richard allows no time for other interests nor friends, and surprisingly, the sisters love him for his intensity. In fact, Richard’s other non-tennis-playing daughters love him just as much, despite the fact that he doesn’t show them even 10% of the attention he showers on Venus and Serena.
Richard understands his limitations in terms of taking Venus and Serena to the Big Time, so he actively seeks outside coaches who can help his two daughters reach the heights of tennis success. The problem? He can’t afford top-shelf coaching, and he demands an unprecedented level of involvement and control in the athletic, professional and personal lives of his daughters. In other words, he wants to be King Richard, and his kingdom is his family and every aspect of their lives.
Naturally, this bristles everyone Richard considers to be an outsider: the coaches (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal), the circling sports agent (Dylan McDermott), and Richard’s understanding-to-a-point wife (Aunjanue Ellis, excellent), who confronts Richard’s dominance more than once over the course of the film.
Since we all know of the tremendous success of the Williams sisters, a happy ending feels preordained, so it’s easy to assume that the film will be dramatically inert. Fortunately, this is not the case. Rather than structuring itself on a false will-they-or-won’t-they conflict, the story leans instead on a series of small conflicts: father vs. coach, husband vs. wife, newbie vs. seasoned pro, dangerous gang vs. loving family, and so on. There is also the natural conflict inherent in athletic competition, and the filmmakers wisely choose to spotlight less-prominent tennis matches that will be new to all but the most fervent Williams Sisters fan. These digitally enhanced competitions are some of the best tennis sequences ever put on film.
From start to finish, the performances deliver. Smith has a heavy burden portraying an overbearing and erratic father who nevertheless loves his daughters deeply and wants only the best for them. He effectively communicates great love and confidence while never losing the feeling that much of him is driven by anger and frustration with the twists and turns of his own life. Ellis as Brandi Williams, as well as Sidney and Singleton as Venus and Serena, are also spot-on, and the whole cast contributes to the feeling of a finely tuned ensemble.
Unfortunately, what’s also sidelined from time to time is proper pacing. Each dramatic step forward takes too long to develop, which means that just about every scene feels either overlong or redundant. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green has a very good sense of what makes good drama, but he needs to better trust that his audience can follow him without superfluous assistance and exposition. At times, this feels like a film in which the deleted and extended scenes have been reinserted.
Also of concern is the film’s unwillingness to present a true warts-and-all version of Richard Williams. Yes, we see him as obstinate and disrespectful to coaches, but this is a man with other clear and deep personality flaws coupled with an unchecked narcissism that others excuse only because of his talented daughters. This partial sugarcoating feels like a convenient misrepresentation by the filmmakers (the Williams sisters are executive producers of the film).
If you’re a tennis fan, you won’t want to miss “King Richard.” All others may be in for a longer sit than they anticipated, but they will be rewarded for the journey.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.