If you wanted to be unforgiving in the editing room, and maybe order up a few reshoots involving second-billed star Steve Carell, you could just about turn Battle of the Sexes into a routine, watch-and-then-forget-it sports biopic about Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) who was for a time the face of feminism in professional sports after beating over-the-hill asshole Bobby Riggs (Carell) in a much-publicised 1973 tennis match. So let's be clear: the best-case scenario was for a tolerable version of the most mealy-mouthed sort of Oscarbait on the books: an Inspirational True Story with Political Messages for Today.

Battle of the Sexes misses the best-case scenario by a mile, and most of it has to do with the confoundingly inept way that Riggs is brought into a movie that desperately wants to be solely about King. But goddammit, you get a Carell-sized actor, you write him a Carell-sized supporting role, to hell with what makes dramatic sense (and I have what I think is an unpopular opinion, though I really haven't been following the conversation around this movie to know what kind of consensuses have formed: Carell gives the movie's best performance; Stone is not more than okay; among other things, she lacks the physical bearing of a professional athlete. Carell does too, but that is entirely appropriate for his character. But then, this tennis movie gives very few shits about tennis. I'll get back to all of this).

The movie that should have been is the story of how King, maybe the best tennis player in the world in 1973, discovered that the prize for a women's tennis tournament is one-eight the sixe of the men's prize, on the grounds that fewer people watch women play. This despite King having literally just attracted a gigantic audience for her most recent victory. So she spearheads a rebellion, in which the top women players break away into their own independent tournament, organised by King's promoter, Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman). Around the same time, King finds herself falling head over heels in love with L.A.-based hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), which would be less of a problem if A) it wasn't 1973, and there were no celebrities out of the closet, and B) King had ever before this moment acknowledged or been aware of her same-sex attractions. And among other things, her new infatuation - and her new experience with lesbian sex - take a noticeable toll on her playing, allowing Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to sweep by her.

And this puts Court in the hot seat when crusty old Riggs decides to start throwing his dick around, to organise a mixed-gender competition. When Riggs beats Court decisively, King is thrown back into focus, and decides that she needs to not just beat Riggs, but utterly flatten him, with not merely her own fight for equal pay in professional tennis, but the whole edifice of Women's Liberation, riding on seeing the preening braggart shut down.

This is the movie that should have been. This is still, mind you, not a movie that I'd probably have much admiration for: Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that is unbearably proud of taking a bold stance on the social controversies of 1973, and making goddamn sure you notice that stance, even when it starts to bog down the plot. There are also more specific aesthetic shortcomings: it's fucking ugly, for one, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren attempting for a soft, '70s-style look. But it just feels like grossly over-processed color correction, skewing towards shades of metallic greens and blues that aren't authentic to the '70s, or any other period, or to the lived reality of human beings. I'm also not overly impressed with Stone's performance, which annoys me; I've liked her in dodgier roles than this one. But there's something too superficial here, like Stone has decided that King matters most as an iconic and not a human - that's a position the movie can hold, but certainly not the actor. And perhaps, to be fair, Stone is being hemmed in by Simon Beaufoy's characteristically hollow script, which tries awfully hard to avoid delving into King's reason for making her hard choices (particularly the matter of her infidelity and attempting to keep her husband and her lover in balance, a mangled series of scenes that work to nobody's benefit).

Anyway, this still-not-very-exciting movie is a better one than the Battle of the Sexes we got, which takes all of these limitations, and then adds an entire beefy subplot about Riggs's home life, his sadness at being a loser, his cynical calculation that if he plays the part of cartoon chauvinist, he might not be such a loser, and his misery at the thought of being alone. There might well be value to having twinned King/Riggs narratives, but neither Beaufoy nor directors Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton have figured out how to execute that, besides some obvious but still effective mirrored compositions. The tone of the goofy Riggs scenes and the by-the-books biopic King scenes are all fucked; Carell is acting in a much more fun, but noticeably different film from all the rest of the actors; and the full-blown "up with women, down with sexism!" theme that the movie very obviously wants to foreground is incompatible with the "but really, Riggs was just a sad guy who wanted his life to have some kind of meaning, but he was also a ridiculous clown, but also he was a sad clown like Pagliacci" vibe of all those scenes. The result is a middling biopic that jams on the brakes about every 10 minutes, with the kind of short, screaming stop that makes everybody in the car bash their heads on the dashboard.

And then, as a separate matter from all of this, there's the tennis. Now, Battle of the Sexes is secretly not really a tennis movie. It's a history of feminism movie. But it's a movie that uses the basic structure of a sports movie for its entire running time, and for its second half gives itself over almost entirely to training montages (set to a dismayingly obvious list of songs) and game footage. And as a tennis movie, it sucks. Carell playing an old, out-of-shape tennis star, convincingly; Stone is playing one of the living gods of tennis, not conviningly at all; but either way, it doesn't matter. Faris & Dayton have absolutely no flair for shooting the game at all, and this despite tennis being arguably the most inherently cinematic of all sports - it's basically identical to a shot-reverse shot conversational set-up. But instead of staging the games to allow us to see inside King and Riggs's heads as they play, very nearly all of the game footage is shot in boring wide shots, mimicking '70s television coverage. Only I suspect that a sports program would need to be better than this, if it wanted to remain on television for very long. The film spends its entire running time building up to a single conflict, and it then presents that conflict in the most unhelpfully artless way possible; how in God's name anybody thought this would be okay is beyond me, but even if everything in Battle of the Sexes had been working through the first 90 minutes, the depiction of the Battle of the Sexes itself would be enough to consign the film to the eternal hellfires of failed, aesthetically stillborn Oscarbait.