CALLERI: ‘King Richard’ wears a wobbly tennis crown

Aunjanue Ellis and Will Smith (foreground) play parents to promising young tennis students in “King Richard.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the best sports movies I’ve seen – and perhaps yourself as well – is “Rudy.” The film succeeds on a number of levels, but especially because it has an admirable dose of humility layered into its scrappy tale of success.

Athletes, and their associated teammates and coaches, may sometimes be the least humble of people. Regarding that trait as part of the personality of a character in a movie, if the lack of humility overwhelms the storyline, a film can be thrown off-balance.

Being humble is not part of the psyche of Richard Williams, who has been blessed with five daughters and a loving wife. Two of the daughters – Venus and Serena – will grow up to be two of the greatest tennis players in the sport’s history. The movie is titled “King Richard,” and that is its reason for being and its biggest problem.

The film, available in theaters and on HBO Max, certainly has a sense of the underdog about it. The black father of athletically talented daughters goes up against the white-ruled tennis establishment. Most people know the story.

Today, Venus and Serena are tennis royalty, queens of the court. Their father is usually seen in the stands, watching them play and win championship after championship. The young girls, now women, are truly great. Their father is a rock-steady, tightly-focused, glowering figure. The ruler of the roost. A proud man who was determined to succeed. And, succeed he did.

So, why does the movie falter and run out of steam, its energy dissipating? A number of factors contribute. I enjoyed the cohesive nature of the Williams family as delivered by director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin.

There’s a genuine delight in watching five frisky girls and a loving mom who’s a former beauty salon owner and soon graduates with a nursing degree. You sense the love within the family dynamic. She entered her marriage to Richard Williams as a divorcee and the mother of three daughters. She and Williams would have Venus and Serena. The film’s early togetherness scenes work well.

However, soon the strong disconnect between the film “King Richard” wants to be and the film that’s on the screen makes itself known. The early part of the feature wants to be “Rudy.” Richard has plans for Venus and Serena and these plans are about their becoming tennis professionals. The middle and later part of the movie revolve around the the dangers of their Los Angeles Compton neighborhood and the rigid upper-class culture of tennis’s ruling elite. The story becomes less comfortable.

The reason the story becomes uncomfortable is because there’s a duality to how Will Smith plays Richard that fragments the goings-on. He trains his daughters in tennis in ways that border on the excessive. What we see is a tyrant, whose bullying behavior is often unpleasant to watch, to say the least. He brooks no interference from anyone. He ignores beneficial advice from professionals. He forces the young girls to relentlessly practice in the rain. He has a vision and no one will disrupt his plans.

His goals are to force the tennis establishment to accept his daughters on his terms, when in fact, their natural greatness is all the evidence the world of tennis needs.

The women in Williams’s life – his wife and daughters – are wonderful and the casting of them is superb, especially Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene the mother and Saniyya Sidney as Venus and Demi Singleton as Serena.

Regarding Smith, he seems reluctant to play the overly stern character as written. Therefore, we get embellishments that belie Williams’s fierce stubbornness. We get jokes, and we get a softening around the harsh edges. It’s as if actor Smith is unwilling to go full-bore nasty. Richard is not nice. He’s not likable.

Very early on, there’s a scene where he gets punched around by some Compton punks. This action is strictly for the audience. We are being told that Williams is a mellow man protecting his children. Yes, that’s partially true, but it’s also a sop. We’re being set-up. We’re being ordered to like Richard, future faults and all.

Basically, Smith still wants to be the lovable Fresh Prince of Bel Air, only this time around it’s the Fresh Prince of Bel Air teaches tennis.

“King Richard” repeats practice scenes and meanders relentlessly. Its lumbering 145-minute length is tedious. As the movie progresses, you realize the story is going to stay focused on Venus and Serena as children. We are not going to see them as adults taking on all comers and defeating them handily. We only get to their early teenage years, and the movie will come to a close with an unsatisfactory ending. This is because what we have been watching is not their story. And that’s a sad truth.

The film is a parade of Will Smith’s tics and tropes and taking an overbearing command of the situation. His sometimes silly performance is awkward. Uncertain. Overacted. Who are the real sports heroes here? The talent and personalities of Venus and Serena take a back seat to what this filmed effort turns out to be. They are the true inspirational figures. We deserve to see that. We’ve earned the right to see that.

“King Richard” is about an alleged saint. I disagree strongly with the tenor and tone of the movie. Everything in front of us is geared to burnishing Smith’s reputation, not the hard work or success of Venus and Serena as young women. Sorry ladies, you are genuinely great tennis players, but maybe next time.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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