King Richard (2021)
King Richard (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 14 min.

Release Date: November 19th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green Actors: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal, Tony Goldwyn

 


 

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ven before his daughters were born, Richard Williams (Will Smith, affecting a notably specific accent and diction) had their whole careers mapped out for them in a 78-page plan. “I’m in the champion-making business,” he insists as he shops around for potential coaches, between taking teenagers Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to nearby tennis courts to practice, rain or shine. “You ever think about basketball?” one of those possible trainers rudely queries.

There may be plenty of hardships to come, but audiences will likely be well aware of the providential fates of Venus and Serena, whose names will forever be married with professional tennis. In their early years, as depicted here, it’s evident that their upbringing in Compton was particularly hazardous, even though it’s unclear how much of this biographical account is pure embellishment or mere anecdotal exaggeration – such as a physical run-in with a mouthy harasser at the park. “They need better everything,” Richard admits, as his plan battles against the limited number of hours in a day, spread tryingly across continual coaching, working night shifts, raising all five of his daughters, and maintaining a family life – in a delicate partnership with his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis).

Poverty and a lack of resources and connections are always strong materials for a film; the rags-to-riches yarn is a trusty formula full of emotional discouragement and eventual triumph. Unfortunately, “King Richard” focuses primarily – and perhaps expectedly, thanks to the title – on Richard himself, which is something of a strained, confusing choice. Unlike his daughters, his individual story is far less exultant, oftentimes coming across as problematic; rather than portraying him chiefly as a supportive father or an eccentric detriment, the picture balances his positives and negatives in ever odder ways, frequently showing that his egotistical, domineering decisions are either hurtful, hypocritical, or accidentally fortuitous. Is he meant to be the villain in Venus and Serena’s lives? Or merely a hurdle that they must contend with, even though they’re never old enough or in a powerful enough position to actually confront him? Or are all of his questionable choices intended to reveal some underlying, masterful scheme that he surely couldn’t have known would lead to their extraordinary success?

On the road to the Williams sisters’ international acclaim, “King Richard” incorporates a wealth of drama for the sake of drama, including a rather unconvincing, suspicious resolution to the Compton bully. At least Richard is initially detailed as someone who admirably makes his own opportunities to secure a respectable coach, with access to better courts and affiliations with people of greater means; nothing is simply given to him, as Richard hustles to open doors. Eventually, however, the inevitable training montages ensue, decorated with enthusiastic music and encouraging words, pushing aside the family frictions, a hint of sisterly rivalry, and the parenting quarrels.

Ultimately, Venus and Serena’s biography is tremendously inspirational; yet the attention paid here to their intermittently arrogant and irrational father is almost mind-bogglingly narcissistic, considering that his uncomfortable need to be the star reflects directly on the primary perspective of this very film. Why is there a big-budget (or Hollywood-produced) Richard Williams biopic before there’s one for the tennis mavens themselves? Plus, the way this story is shaped and designed leaves plenty to be desired; most of the characters are extremely generic, while the plot is terribly straightforward. With a bit of humor, a dash of heart, a breath of suspense, and a scene or two of impressive acting, “King Richard” presents a surprising lack of surprises; the racial complications, including financial adversity and the struggles to rise from the southern California ghetto are a nice contrast against the rich, mostly-white sport of tennis, but the training, the competitions, the navigations around agents and sponsors, and the overdramatic (and fishily visualized) climactic tournament duel are incredibly routine. It certainly doesn’t help that the runtime is at least 20 minutes too long and that Richard is regularly portrayed in such an unfavorable light that one can’t help but to think that Venus and Serena’s successes are additionally astounding in spite of his involvement rather than because of it.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10