Venus and Serena Williams are undeniably household names in tennis, and across sport in general, but King Richard, the latest drama from director Reinaldo Marcus Green tells the lesser-known tale of their controversial father. As well as producing the film, Will Smith stars in the eponymous role as Richard, raising his five daughters with wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) in Compton, California. His unorthodox methods in priming Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) for success see him butt heads with charismatic coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) and many others along the way.
As the sports biopic sub-genre has become more familiar to audiences, we’ve seen filmmakers experiment with the style and structure of their stories. Green plays it safe with a more conventional narrative, but the globally recognised outcome of Richard’s efforts leaves little room for emotional stakes. This causes the pacing to sag as the paint-by-numbers plot develops, and the tone feels very smug and self-congratulatory in its execution. The script, a debut for screenwriter Zach Baylin, is cluttered with the most obvious references to both tennis and the cultural landscape of the time, and when the sentimental score swells, the writing goes into awards season overdrive. You can imagine which scenes are crafted to be clipped out for ceremony montages.
Casting a universally beloved actor in the title role feels in-keeping with the sugarcoated intentions of this version of events. Optics remain intact as flaws are glossed over in favour of hammering home that his daughters’ talent would prove him right in the end. Because of this, I struggled to get behind Smith’s leading turn which is solid at best, but that being said, there are excellent acting displays from others throughout.
Sidney and Singleton are great as Venus and Serena respectively, their performances growing in stature as the future superstars rally against the questionable behaviour of their obnoxious patriarch. Though she is somewhat sidelined, Ellis is great as Richard’s long-suffering but loving wife. It comes as no surprise from the portrayal of their relationship that they eventually got divorced. Jon Bernthal’s introduction at around the halfway mark as the girls are going professional gives the film a much needed injection of energy. He plays brilliantly against type in a part that feels a little caricaturish, but has just enough charm with it.
King Richard is a bloated spectacle of self-righteousness made tolerable only by a handful of well measured performances.