King Richard arrives preordained as a pleaser of crowds and pursuer of Oscars that have thus far eluded star / producer Will Smith since his first award-worthy performance with 2001’s Ali. It’s an undemanding but not unenjoyable hybrid of sports drama and biopic in which Smith plays Richard Williams — the simultaneously ingratiating and irritating impresario who insisted upon an unconventional path to stardom for his tennis-prodigy daughters, Venus and Serena.
Because even those who’ve never watched tennis know these siblings went on to shatter all manner of the sport’s records and restrictions, King Richard is inherently free of surprises. Because they are executive producers on the film, it also generally lays off thornier aspects of Richard’s past — namely their half-siblings to whom he afforded a mere fraction of his attention.
A tougher, more objective production might have pushed King Richard, which debuts tomorrow in theaters and on HBOMax, to a meatier match point. Regardless, it’s a well-acted and well-meaning movie that’s as much about the difficulty of raising good people as it is raising great tennis players. Smith is the one gaining awards attention, deservedly so given the skill with which he characterizes both Richard’s collegial and combative contradictions. He doesn’t much resemble the real-life figure, but it’s an evocative expression of the sometimes exhausting exuberance with which Richard pushed his process and a towering and yes, sometimes tyrannical performance that carefully straddles the line between self-aggrandizement and self-confidence. But as it was with the Williams’ sisters ascension, King Richard also works because it’s a team effort. Smith is abetted by career-best work from Aunjanue Ellis (as Richard’s wife, Oracene), a breakout turn from Saniyya Sidney as Venus, and a role in which the oft-intense Jon Bernthal can unclench a little bit as Rick Macci, the short-shorted tennis coach whom Richard vigorously trusts but vehemently tests.
The film opens with Richard tooling all five daughters around in a Volkswagen van, scratching out time as he can on Compton courts with Venus and Serena. Even in a downpour, he hangs motivational signs: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”; “Be humble, say thank you”; “you are a winner!” The girls are good, but Richard and Oracene have taught them all the tennis they possibly can. To get to the next level, they need the facilities of a club and the focus of a coach. But to focus on both girls is, as one person says, like asking people to believe Richard has the next two Mozarts living in his house.
Zach Baylin’s script conveys how much Richard has pushed down about his past to be his girls’ own best salesman — a Southern childhood of beatings at the hands of the KKK, police and white neighbors, followed by an adulthood of failed businesses and relationships. “This world ain’t never had no respect for Richard Williams, but they gonna respect y’all,” he says. Baylin is less successful at integrating Richard’s fleeting flashes of early desperation, especially during a vicious attack from a neighborhood gang. A moment where Richard’s plan seems like it’s about to be ripped apart ends with a deus ex machina moment, and nothing more is mentioned again about Richard’s confrontation of his own capacity for violence; in fact, another potential clash instead downshifts to awkward comic effect.
Richard eventually persuades coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) to join their team. But he can only take one girl, so they choose Venus as the elder sister. (From there, Serena is essentially a narrative afterthought, although more of the 144 minutes could stand to explore Richard’s presence with her, or lack thereof, beyond a couple convenient reminders that this is part of his plan. When Venus enters the junior circuit of competitive play, Richard is appalled at the stuffy, screaming parents who berate their kids after a loss. It’s a soul-crushing crucible that Cohen insists is the cost of professional ascension. Richard begs to differ and, after pulling them from competitive play, retains Macci, a flashy Floridian who has Venus’s best interests at heart but also butts heads with Richard’s reluctance to let her rip at a higher level of play.
The last things Richard or Oracene want are for their daughters’ passions to curdle, for them to become braggarts who bruise feelings or for their dreams to go down in an early flame-out. But Oracene will only suffer so much of her husband’s foolishness, especially when it threatens to topple everything they’ve built together. A sudden confrontation in their Florida home, the film’s finest scene, finds Oracene pushing Richard to face his neuroses in a friendly space where they live. Ellis stays toe-to-toe with Smith from the start, and if Smith’s awards competition seems foretold, she should be right there with him. Their insistence on the girls’ hardline kindness and competitive mindset is commendable. But what they don’t count on is how deeply Venus’s independence will assert itself and challenge the most difficult control for Richard to relinquish.
King Richard strikes a (sadly) timely chord about prioritizing mental health over physical dominance, especially in the wake of withdrawal from competition by tennis sensation Naomi Osaka (whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as the Williams sisters). Richard’s push-and-pull with Venus comes to a head in another terrific scene when Richard offers Venus an image-conscious illustration of how bright, hot and blinding the spotlight will be once she steps into it. The final act chronicles her coming-out matches in 1994 at age 14, including a significant second-act bout against #2-ranked Arantxa Sánchez Vicario. The match is shot with crisp, clean rah-rah action by cinematographer Robert Elswit, and the emotional journey on which it takes Venus is underscored by Richard’s purposeful absence for so much of it.
King Richard is not just a sports-movie spin on The Pursuit of Happyness. Neither does it settle for bland Blind Side-ish bromides. The most damning thing that can be said of it is that for a film about aggressive, paradigm-shifting players, it feels a little too safe and comfortable — more content to reign with accolades than to explore deeper costs of the crown.