Since Richard can’t reproduce by osmosis, “King Richard” reminds us the Williams sisters had a mother, Brandy, played by the always welcome Aunjanue Ellis. Ellis is somewhat trapped in the “supportive spouse who puts up with a bunch of crap yet has her own dreams” role, but she has two knockout scenes that reinforce why she’s one of my favorite currently working actors. The larger, and more impressive of the two, occurs when she finally has had enough of her husband’s self-martyrdom. Brandy reads her husband for filth, and the electricity between the fiery Ellis and the backpedaling yet still prideful Smith makes for one of the year’s best scenes. It’s a smaller version of Viola Davis’ masterful scene opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences”—Brandy and Rose are saying the same thing, combatting and besting the same type of foe—but it’s equally memorable.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green is much better at directing the dramatic scenes than he is at the tennis sequences. They have a flat, repetitive quality that doesn’t reflect just how exciting they were in real life. Since this has to end, as all sports movies do, with the big game, this could have been a major deficit. But “King Richard” is smart enough to know its strength is in its acting, so it wisely cuts between the play action and Richard and Brandy’s reactions and monologues. Green is also far better at conveying the intensity of the threats in Compton (a scene of shocking violence is superbly handled by the director and Smith) than he is at depicting the inherent racism prevalent at the lily-White clubs where Venus and Serena compete. They seem too gentle and jokey, though Jon Bernthal gives a good, frustration-filled turn as coach Rick Macci.
Much will be made of Smith’s performance, which is excellent, and I’m hoping Ellis gets all the praise she deserves. But Sidney and Singleton should also be commended for their excellent work as Venus and Serena. Both have difficult roles to play, that of the rising star and the budding one temporarily trapped in her shadow, respectively. Plus, unlike Will Smith, they have to mimic two of the greatest athletes to ever play any sport. They should be kept in the conversation, because it’s the acting across the board that ultimately saves “King Richard.” It earns the extra half-star that makes this a “thumbs up” review. At 140 minutes, the film is about half an hour too long, but everyone onscreen made the extra time far more tolerable than it could have been.
“King Richard” will be available in theaters and on HBO Max on November 19th.
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