“King Richard” redirects tennis phenomenon of Venus and Serena Williams away from the sisters and toward their father, Richard. He is played by Will Smith in a performance guaranteed an Oscar nomination – deserved, by the way – because the entire film is built to support that outcome.
What we have here is moderately good sports biopic with a very fine performance at center court. Secondarily, in terms of screen time, debut screenwriter Zach Baylin’s enthusiastic account also manages some of what Richard’s then-wife, Oracene, played by the terrific Aunjanue Ellis, did to parent, coach, cajole and shape these two particular daughters, in a family of five high-achieving girls, into ferocious competitors.
The results will please a wide audience searching for inspirational true-life stories ending with a reaffirmation of family, faith and hard, hard work. That said: Even the verifiably true material in “King RIchard” has a way of coming off like a Hollywood movie in the most “Hollywood movie” sense of those words.
Richard is a man with a plan, and an early rejection montage in “King Richard” chronicles his efforts to finance his daughter’s training. Meantime, rain or shine, night and day, father and daughters drill on grubby public courts in their Compton neighborhood. Time and again, Richard suffers physical beatings and death threats at gunpoint from the local gangbangers who come sniffing around Serena and Venus. “Daddy got beat up again,” one of the girls tells their mother, as the family returns home one evening.
From there Richard, a night security guard, recommits to his plan, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (”Monsters and Men,” “Joe Bell”) recommits to his movie’s familiar blueprint for success. The chapters flip by, efficiently. With constant reminders of the value of the “open stance” from Richard, the girls flower under their first professional coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn). Then, an impasse, followed by a relocation of the family to Florida. There, coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal, amusingly exasperated) becomes a family friend, though Richard is calling the shots. The debates are intense: With Venus getting all the initial focus, should she go pro? Wait a few years?
The film feels like a relay race, with the story dominated for a long time by Richard’s homespun, unerring wisdom, travails and success. Then it hands off to Venus, as she rises like a rocket. Then, a baton-pass to Serena. A lot of it works in spite of the writing. Frustratingly, “King Richard” blands out the personality differences in Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), treating them as a cutesy double act (”Yes, Daddy,” they say in unison). The movie makes no bones and no apologies about being a loving portrait of Richard. I couldn’t shake the feeling the key Williamses were being marginalized in their own story.
The strongest scene in “King Richard” gathers up all the movie’s strengths and weaknesses in a single basket. In Florida, in the kitchen of their new home, Oracene confronts Richard about his taking a lion’s share of the credit for, well, everything. More and more comes tumbling out, in Ellis’s exquisitely pitched monologue: the children her husband fathered earlier in his life, their way of coming around unexpectedly, the effect of Richard’s ego and his insecurity have on the family at hand.
It’s an effective clash, acted so well by both Ellis and Smith that it postpones the audience reaction of “Wait. What? New information!” a full minute or more. After that, “King Richard” settles back into safety and hagiography. Richard’s rougher edges and harsher parenting and training impulses have been sanded down to a nice, smooth surface.
That’s a shame, because Smith is not just a movie star. He’s an extremely savvy dramatic actor, who lets his natural comic ebullience energize all sorts of material. “King Richard” is one sort: a subject-approved, by-the-numbers celebration of tennis titans who stand alone, together. Maybe I just wanted more of their story, along with Richard’s. Maybe that’s unfair to this movie. But for related reasons, assuming they might’ve felt that way at least once in their childhoods, I wouldn’t have minded just one cutaway shot of the girls rolling their eyes for a half-second during one of their father’s lengthy life lessons.
In 1997 Richard Williams told the New York Times: ‘’I started like most parents. I wanted to make a million dollars. I started for the wrong reason. That’s why I don’t feel good about it.” A hint, at least, of that piece of this man’s complicated personality – that’s something that could’ve made a good Will Smith performance varied, challenging, more truthful. And, in the Williams family tradition, great.