King Richard is the kind of film designed to make you feel sweet and warm and nice while you're watching it, with maybe just a soupçon of self-righteousness, and then to evaporate like the morning dew the literal instant that it's over. It is a sports biopic, probably my all-time second-least-favorite kind of movie (musician biopics would be first), so who am I to say if it works at its stated goal or not? I mean, I suppose none of us will know if it worked at its real goal or not until 27 March, 2022, since that goal is very obviously to win Will Smith the Academy Award for Best Actor he's been chasing for 20 years (if you're arriving here after that day, feel free to stop in the comments to say hi from the future!). I won't say he obviously deserves to; it's not a terribly complicated or layered performance. It would hardly be the worst performance to win that award, at least; he's charismatic as ever, and to my admittedly uneducated ears, it sounds like he's doing good work with adopting a Louisiana accent. But the stated goal is to make us feel good and vaguely insightful as we watch how one man's dogged determination helped him rise above poverty and institutional racism to browbeat his daughters into becoming the two best tennis players in history.

I'm hardly the person to tell you anything about the actual Richard Williams, father to living legends Venus and Serena Williams, and the person Smith inhabits over the course of King Richard's mesmerisingly unjustified 145-minute running time; I do have some vague sense that he's not held to be a terribly nice person, nor a terribly good father. But I don't know from tennis; Venus and Serena are very close to being the only players I can even name. So let's toss all of that aside, and focus on the material of the film itself, as directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin: here is the story of how Richard Williams is not a terribly nice person, nor a terribly good father. It's a bit unclear how much King Richard is aware of this. Certainly, it seems to think that his myopic, decade-spanning fixation on raising a pair of tennis phenoms out of the Compton ghetto is a sign of his admirable stick-to-it-iveness; early in the film, he mentions to another character that he fathered Venus and Serena specifically in order to be in a position to train his children from birth to be world-class tennis players, and as far as I can tell, we are meant to find this cute, as opposed to deeply horrifying. On the other hand, when Richard gets chewed out by his quietly longsuffering wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis, giving the film its most potent, human, natural performance, despite being hemmed-in by the hard limits of playing The Wife In A Biopic), we are absolutely supposed to take her side and see his obsessions as being a drain on the emotional stability of his family. So people are complicated, I guess is the takeaway.

But the main takeaway, of course, is that Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) are terrific tennis players, and it's really uplifting that they succeeded in rising to the top of their field despite coming from a deeply underprivileged background that, as a rule, never produced competitive athletes in the stuffy, upper-class world of professional tennis. And of course that is uplifting, but that uplift comes from the real-life Williams sisters themselves, not so much from how King Richard presents them. Which it doesn't do very much of; by the end of its epochal running time, the film has pivoted over to telling the story of how Venus had her first great successes in the mid-'90s, but for the most part, it's exactly what the title promises: the story of Richard himself, and how he used a combination of willpower, wit, and good old-fashioned all-American limelight to arrange top-notch coaches for his daughters and clear the runway for their future success.

This is a weird choice of narrative focus, but not unworkable. The problem comes in the form of how Green and Baylin approach Richard's biography: not as a dramatic arc, but as a series of functionally identical moments of him muscling his way into a space where he's not welcome and using his domineering personality to make the other person give in. The first 45 or so minutes, especially, are basically just a flat field of nothing actually happening; sure, there are events in the script, including a real melodramatic barnburner of a scene where Richard decides to kill a man who has wronged him, only for that man to die of gang warfare first, and it's really just a strangely warped, melodramatic moment that the film doesn't bother inflecting at all. Which is the problem with King Richard in a nutshell: it just strings out a great many narrative beats without giving us any particular reason to care about this beat differently from that beat, or to particularly understand how what we're watching now has evolved from what we were watching 30 minutes ago. Basically, the film requires us to know in advance that Venus and Serena Williams turn out to be world-renowned tennis superstars for there to even be the illusion of narrative momentum, and, I mean, it's highly likely that everybody who sees the film will know that. But it's still cheating.

The slack rhythm of the film, coupled with its running time, is pretty deadly. But that's pretty much it as far as things that are genuinely, actively bad. Which is one more item than is on the list of things that are genuinely, actively good, to be sure. Mostly, King Richard is just there, a perfect example of the kind of paint-by-numbers, safely unimaginative Oscarbait that has taken pretty much exactly this same form since, heck, since at least the mid-'90s, when it takes place. And if I thought that was intentional, I might even find it clever. But it seems pretty clear this was just an exercise in getting the job done, cleanly and professionally and without any measure of real inspiration. The most damning thing I can say about the movie is that it was shot by Robert Elswit, who has some top-notch masterpieces of cinematography to his name, but it's impossible to tell it wasn't made by any random journeyma; King Richard's visual aesthetic extends precisely as far as having a slightly unusual color scheme, with all of the images graded to golden hour warmth that looks cozy but doesn't have all that much to do with the film per se. Pamela Martin's editing makes some creative gestures, mostly in the tennis scenes, but that's pretty much where we run out. And all that leaves is a perfectly ordinary, perfectly functional, and perfectly boring biopic. Nothing wrong with that; more crucially, nothing right with it, either.