MOVIE REVIEW – King Richard is nothing less than a “clear-eyed tribute” to the man who set tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, on their path. Starring Will Smith, the film focuses on the father at the heart of the story of the Venus and Serena Williams tennis dynasty.
King Richard tells the story of the beginnings of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, but the spotlight is on their father, Richard, rather than their sisters. He’s played by Will Smith in a performance that’s obviously up for an Oscar nomination, as the whole film is based on this outcome.
“Our father, our tennis coach and our king”
The protagonist of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s new film, King Richard, is an unusual “marketer”. Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) drives around Los Angeles in a rickety VW bus, focused on finding a coach for his daughters, whom he is determined to turn into tennis prodigies. But his “hiring” method involves turning up on the doorsteps of local coaches, chasing them for attention, handing out handmade flyers touting his daughters’ stats and suggesting they coach for free. His cheeky request makes the whole enterprise look ridiculous, except that he already knows what he is doing – as a ‘kind of visionary’ – and why he is doing it because his daughters are Venus and Serena Williams.
Herein lies the particular tension of King Richard, a sports biopic about the patriarch who helped launch the careers of two of history’s most famous tennis players. When the film begins, he truly understands how special his daughters are, but there is little mystery to the audience about how talented Venus and Serena are.
At the beginning of King Richard, I found myself wondering why a film about these two legendary female athletes was telling their story from their father’s point of view. A notoriously unorthodox figure, Richard Williams decided his daughters would be tennis stars when Venus was 4. He wrote a 78-page manifesto plotting their careers and coached them on Compton’s local courts. His zeal was undoubtedly fundamental, but it was their skill that propelled them to the pinnacle of their sporting careers. So why focus on the ‘King’?
“… but Dad’s a bit of a maniac too…”
Then, about 30 minutes into King Richard, Williams finally convinces Venus (Saniyya Sidney) to stand in front of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), a Los Angeles coach who has worked with such greats as Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, and Venus unsurprisingly immediately stuns Cohen with her talent. For this reason, the film is titled King Richard, rather than, say, Queen Venus – the girls’ talent, while impressive, is devoid of narrative tension, while Williams’ quirky outlook on life provides much of the film’s tension. Green’s film, written by Zach Baylin and executive produced by the Williams sisters, functions mainly as a tribute to their atypical upbringing, celebrating the father who set them on their path while also viewing his somewhat manic mission with some healthy scepticism.
Will Smith, “Oscar-mode”?
Will Smith has recently concentrated on familiar action movie roles in retrospective action films such as Bad Boys for Life and Gemini Man. But his two Oscar nominations – Ali and The Pursuit of Happiness – both came from biopics. He physically departed from his usual star image while still giving the regular, routine charismatic performances that made him famous. King Richard is a step in the same direction. As Williams, Smith’s hair turns grey, he walks with a slightly awkward shuffle and speaks in angry monologues, often spiralling into a passionate rage over the slightest slight.
But for all his unpredictability, Smith makes sure to impart to Williams’ eyes a certain sparkle and a unique charm that he possessed long before his daughters’ fame brought fortune and success to the whole family. The stakes of King Richard’s plot hinge on whether the film’s characters understand his sincere commitment to his daughters’ guidance and condone his eccentricities; later, as Venus and Serena become more settled in the tennis world, Williams’ motive for raising them changes from protecting them from growing up too fast to aggressively fighting back attempts to put them on a fast track to the pros.
Hollywood above all else
We end up with a moderately good sports biopic, with one or two standout performances at the centre, focusing on the departure of two female tennis stars. King Richard will appeal to a broad audience looking for inspiring true stories that reinforce family, faith and arduous work. Although not an action movie Will Smith movie, it is still a conventional Hollywood film in every sense, as we have also seen a few times from the actor.