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"King Richard" Review

 I never got around to watching King Richard - the biopic about Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams - when it had its premiere run on Hobo Max concurrent with its theatrical release. The subject didn't grab me and I just never got around to it. My girlfriend did watch it and her review was, "It's a TV movie and Will Smith is Will Smith." Not really a ringing endorsement.

I may have never looped back to checking it out - I'm not a big sports movie guy - if not for it picking up six Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Song. So I watched it and she was 2/3rds right: It's an overlong TV movie biopic, but Smith does bring some acting to the proceedings. It also reinforces my desire to see the Academy burned to the ground because while a passable movie, it's hardly Best Picture material and it really shows just how watered down and toothless movies have become.

 There's not much plot to recap. Starting in 1991 when Venus (Saniyya Sidney) was 11 and Serena (Demi Singleton) was 10, we see Richard (Smith) taking them to the public tennis courts in their hometown of Compton where gangbangers hang around menacing them. Richard and his wife, Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), have been coaching their girls around their paying jobs as a security guard and nurse, respectively. Their home is modest and crowded with the four of them plus three daughters from a previous marriage. 

Richard believes his girls will be the best ever and has been making videotapes and brochures in a vain attempt to get sponsors and coaches, getting nowhere because who's ever heard of a top tennis player being a little black girl from Compton. No one ever says as much, but it's a factor along with Richard's overbearing manner which continually becomes a risk of blowing everything up as he challenges how things are done. Eventually he secures coaching for Venus from John McEnroe and Pete Sampras' coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), getting her on the juniors circuit, then getting Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), then hot thing Jennifer Capriati's coach, to take on both girls and move the entire family to Florida to train.

 King Richard has the common problem with biopics in that we know how this ends. We are never in doubt that the girls will succeed because we know they have stood astride the tennis world like giants where the only real competition was each other. So the only real interest in their story is either what they did to get there (A: practice, practice, PRACTICE) or how did Richard engineer their path to glory and how many times did he nearly blow it all up? Again, since we know that it all worked out, it's up to the movie to convince us that they wouldn't have made it without his and Brandy's diligent support or that he couldn't have wrecked his epic plan and it just doesn't make it happen. 

Smith is favored to win Best Actor (as he did at the SAG Awards recently) and I can't compare him against the field because I've only seen one other performance (Bernadette Cummerbund in The Power of the Dog which didn't impress me), but when two of the others (Denzel Washington and Javier Bardem) have already won, Andrew Garfield has a long career ahead, and Bandersnatch is white and hasn't been a major movie star for a quarter century and it's been 15 years since Big Willie was last nominated, you can bet the rent. 

All that said, it's a good performance. Even playing near his age (around 50), Smith can't completely dim his charm, but Richard was a fame-seeking hype man for a hot product (his daughters), so it's not going to be agoraphobic. You can see the weight of what his hopes and dreams for his daughters mean behind the bluster even when they script minimizes his faults so much that when his wife mentions previous children and failed businesses during an argument, it's a big surprise and then never mentioned again. (Seriously, this is nominated?) 

Squaring off in the typical Strong Mother Keeping The Family Together When Dad Gets Vainglorious role is the nominated Ellis who embodies the strong woman behind the flighty at times man. She's good, but the character is stock. Also good are the girls playing the sisters and when the time jump happened, their looks changed so much that I checked to see if new actresses were swapped in. (There weren't.) Perhaps the biggest surprise performance was Bernthal who comes of like a peppy Robert Walden (ask your parents) as opposed to his usual fistfaced brooding roles.

 Also restraining the cinematic aspects are the perfunctory direction by Reinaldo Marcus Green which doesn't do anything to make the endless tennis sequences visually interesting, leading to a samey monotony which does little to amp up the drama; the pedestrian editing has little to work with and again, this was nominated. 

King Richard isn't a bad or merely mediocre movie; it's just nothing particular special as either a biopic or sports flick and really doesn't belong in this race. I didn't know much about the Williams sisters since I'm not really a sports guy other than they seem to be ubiquitous winners, and after seeing this I still don't really know much about them. Then again, it's not called Queens Venus & Serena, is it?

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's back on HBO Max) 


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