More of a traditional sports film than a familial drama, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard features a great supporting cast and a showcase performance for Will Smith (that didn’t really work for me).
Smith stars as Richard Williams, the ambitious father of future tennis stars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena Williams (Demi Singleton). Along with their mother Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis), the tireless work ethic of the Williams family attempts to push all the daughters to greatness.
Without the resources or proper coaching, Richard turns to forceful drop-ins at prestigious tennis clubs with the hopes of catching the eye of coaches. Such drop-ins catch the eye of professional coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). Under Richard’s watchful eye, the Williams sisters attempt to grow into the stars they will soon become.
The film largely paints a rose-colored portrait of Richard in relation to how his daughters were raised. It goes out of its way to show how much he cared about his girls receiving an education and not living on the streets. It also painstakingly reiterates the dangers of burnout from a grueling amateur and professional tennis schedule.
Like many other real-life stories, there are plenty of scenes that really stretch the realm of suspension of disbelief. Only with the benefit of hindsight do some of the scenes in the film make sense, and even then, there is a gentle skepticism that anything near these actually happened. Luckily, the film focuses more on the destination instead of the minutiae of the journey.
The film has a secret weapon: Smith/Richard is not the most interesting performance/character in the film. His approach is broad and full of ticks and odd traits. The entire rest of the movie actually feels grounded in reality where he feels written by a writer’s workshop. Both the Williams sisters act mostly like young girls who happen to be good at tennis. Brandy is appalled every time Richard does something ridiculous, as are the tennis coaches. Smith goes big and Richard is too domineering to care about in the long run.
Ellis does the best job, showing that someone who works just as hard as her husband doesn’t need all the credit and press. She has a standout scene late in the film where she calls out Richard on all his nonsense. We immediately side with her because she feels like a real person whereas Richard is all caricature. Sidney and Singleton also do fine work as the sisters. If they aren’t actually playing tennis, it sure seems like they are. All the actual tennis portrayals look stunningly accurate.
Bernthal plays the more open of the two coaches and gives the film some much-needed light levity. It takes a while for his character to show up, but his presence is always welcome. He balances his characterization between a savior and a huckster, but never lands on either side. Goldwyn plays the more traditionally stingy of the coaches but still lends heart to the proceedings.
The screenplay is filled with sports and social cliches, but everything is so entertaining, it’s easy enough to forgive. I can’t say Green has a distinct visual style, though I again would reiterate the tennis scenes were top-notch.
King Richard was a bit of a surprise for me. Sometimes a story is more powerful than any slights the film might have, and despite Smith’s odd performance, I still came away enjoying myself.
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