On the surface, “King Richard,” the story of Richard Williams raising his two daughters, Venus and Serena, to be tennis superstars is just as inspiring as the marketing claims it to be. Through sheer determination, they went from having very little, living in Compton, to being two of the greatest athletes of all time. It’s proof of the American Dream. But, as the title suggests, the focus is more on Richard than his extremely talented daughters, and his story is more sad than inspirational.
Will Smith has and continues to make a lot of fun, silly, and occasionally terrible movies. But, interspersed through this filmography are dramatic roles that he takes seriously and clearly has a passion for. Two of his biographical films, “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happiness,” have garnered Academy Award Nominations, but the wins have eluded him so far. His portrayal of Richard Williams may finally change that. Richard is a very complicated man, often unlikeable but always fascinating. At first, he seems to dance the line between confidence and arrogance, but as we delve deeper we see he carries a tremendous amount of pain and fear with him. He’s been beaten down so many times in life that he uses his daughters as the line in the sand no one can make him cross. As much as he says it is their success, future, and happiness that drives every choice he makes, it’s almost more about him. He wants to prove to the world, and to himself, that he has value. Will Smith carries the weight of this on his shoulders as he slouches through most of the movie until key interactions demand that he plants a foot and stands tall. His performance deftly transitions from subtle emotions dancing just under the surface to loud, bombastic displays of pure stubbornness.
It’s tempting to call Smith’s performance the best part of the movie, but that would be a disservice to three other outstanding performances. Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton playing Venus and Serena respectfully, have the doubly difficult task of not only being good performers but also making us believe they are exceptional tennis athletes. Not only do they achieve this with ease, but they have such a delightful screen presence that it’s hard not to smile as they steal the scenes they are in. Jon Bernthal also shines in his energetic portrayal of famed tennis coach Rick Macci. Bernthal is one of those actors who always gives such a consistent performance that he rarely gets the credit he deserves. Might this be the role that could snag some award considerations?
Unless you’re an avid fan of tennis, the movie tends to drag on, especially in the final act. After a certain point, it stops becoming a character study and instead a very long recap of key matches in their early career. At one point, an opponent walks off the court for 10 minutes mid-match. It’s an old dirty trick that breaks the flow of the winning player. Ironically, it has the exact same effect on the movie, thoroughly deflating one of the more exciting matches. Considering it actually happened, and is pivotal to the story, it would be impossible to omit. Just because something is true, doesn’t mean it’s always entertaining and will make a good movie. Similarly, it’s kind of a shame that Richard Williams is the main focus of the film and less on his talented daughters. Yes, he accomplished the impossible. But at what cost? He’s stubborn, short-tempered, selfish, and manipulative. He constantly reiterates that the girls are doing what they love, and he’s only hard on them to keep them out of the streets. At one point he tells another after learning a player could win $40,000 after a single match, he sat down and wrote a 78-page plan to raise a daughter to be a tennis champion. When he jokes that he “told his wife we’re going to need a couple more kids” it makes you question his true intentions.