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‘King Richard’ Review: Will Smith-led tennis drama holds serve against sports-movie conventions

The story of the man who paved Venus and Serena Williams' path to superstardom is laden with tonal inconsistency but reliably winning chemistry.

Tennis may be at the center of “King Richard,” a formulaic but functional crowdpleaser about the man who raised Venus and Serena Williams to be champions before the world saw it for themselves. But the sport that most readily comes to mind in scenes where the titular patriarch stretches his life-shaping commitment to his daughters so tight that it threatens to snap back on them is track; so firmly does Richard believe in the blueprint he’s created that when it comes time for the Williams sisters to take the next step toward their destinies, he’s wary about passing the baton. 

“King Richard” is a movie that likes to feign interest in this driving contradiction revealing the underdog in his family’s own story without fully exploring it, resulting early and often in vignettes of self-contained energy, even as the overarching narrative remains clear. The most distracting of these comes late in the 144-minute runtime, when teenage Venus dreamily gazes at the stadium where her sister has begun to step into the spotlight. We can read the swirl of emotions in Demi Singleton’s posture. She’s proud, but shouldn’t she be here too, having worked just as hard? Richard brings assurance: Venus will be the top tennis player in the world one day, but Serena will be the greatest to have ever played. 

That moment, conjured out of narrative thin air at a point when Serena has seemingly been excised from it, is playing the long game in its payoff. But it also has the mood of a subdued reckoning that a more ambitious take on this real-life story might have been fueled by. In a movie that exists to showcase the moral and athletic victories of its characters, this scene instead feels like it takes them for granted. 

Luckily for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the person who speaks those words to Serena is Will Smith. And because it’s the same Will Smith who we’ve seen save the world several times over without losing his cool on the big screen, there’s no disbelieving his prophetic statement. We’re beckoned to sit back and enjoy the ride as the bricks paving the path toward superstardom are laid. Smith’s casting makes enough sense from both a marketing and artistic perspective; his on-screen confidence is second to not many others, and “King Richard” spins that confidence into dramatic tension. But it’s a performance that consistently regresses to a norm even as the movie around it evolves, and pure fatherly charisma can only electrify “King Richard” so far before Venus’s story continues to bloom in spite of it. 

Aside from the way Robert Elswit’s cinematography contrasts backyard Compton courts against the pearly confines of private arenas, there’s nothing particularly outstanding about the movie’s craft – for all intents and purposes, it adheres to the same kind of purposeful “plan” Richard is devoted to – and the script grows from the unquenched soil of motivational-poster quotes and wide-eyed ultimatums, with very little space for the implicit experience of familial sacrifice to draw those two tones together. One exception is Aunjanue Ellis, the Emmy-nominated actress whose lived-in performance as Oracene Williams conjures up an emotional charge which the rest of “King Richard” has largely made peace with nullifying in the name of maximum spectator pleasantry. Ellis is outstanding as the matriarch facilitating her family’s accomplishments while retaining an unspoken sadness about where it takes them, or rather where it takes them away from; while Smith is bouncing off the movie’s momentum, she’s anchoring it. 

It’s about halfway through the story that “King Richard” shifts bigger focus to Prodigy Richard, the unstoppability of Venus’s ascendance occasionally clashing against the immovability of dad’s all-consuming determination. This makes for a slightly more complicated movie and a vastly more interesting one as the Richards transplant to Florida, where they get a taste of the luxury that awaits if Nike or Reebok notice Venus’s talent. The sincerity underscoring this storyline is taut, emboldened by the family’s close-knit chemistry. And Saniyya Sidney plays pre-superstar-Venus with just the right balance of youthful buoyancy and burgeoning swagger. 

“King Richard” is undoubtedly sweetened by the fact that this magical origin story actually happened, but that also safeguards it—every time the music swells as a ball is lobbed into the air while a racket splices the stadium lights overhead, a genre’s familiar confines assert themselves a bit too tightly. Aesthetic gets in the way of personality until aesthetic comes close to becoming personality. What’s also true in “King Richard” is that when sports stories rub up against rags-to-riches inspiration, the spark can be the only thing that matters.  

"King Richard" is rated PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references. It's now in theaters and on HBO Max. 

Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

2021

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