King Richard's Coronation


By: Hopster
November 24, 2021

king richard 2 King Richard [2021]

Film

Take in a deep breath through your nostrils all you movie mouth breathers -- and tell me, what do you smell? And then, take out your AirPods, listen intently, and tell me, what do you hear? Certainly, there are many all-too-familiar aromas that fill the crisp, autumn air this time of year (pumpkin spice lattes, apple cinnamon muffins, the basting of a Butterball turkey in the kitchen, your neighbor's dangerously-large burning pile of withered leaves, etc.); these compulsory fragrances queue the start of that gradually increasing drum pulse that will echo across press junkets, Film Twitter, Letterboxd, and late night TV talk show appearances for the next couple of months. As surely as the saliva spawns on Pavlov's Dog, the unrelenting syncopation and constant humming of Oscar Buzz is beginning its launch into another campaign.

I openly admit and agree that it is way too early to start having any serious conversations about the forthcoming Oscar season and the swirling buzz that comes with the awards circuit. Can I really grumble about how "we start talking about the Oscars before we've had a chance to see the movies," and also complain that it is now an accepeted faux pas to not put out Christmas decorations the day after Halloween? (This is not the time or place to have that discussion -- all I'm saying is I like fall vibes and living in the midwest means there is ample time to enjoy winter, so just let's all put a little more respect on the month of November and condense the calendar unnecessarily, okay?)

But if we were to (at minimum) acknowledge that Oscar-worthy performances are as ready and available as Ghirardelli Holiday Peppermint Bark Chocolate Squares are in your local grocery store's candy aisle (this I am not complaining about), then I'm comfortable talking about a movie, and specifically a performance, that will surely garner some Oscar Buzz this coming winter and awards season.

Debuting this past weekend in theaters and on HBOMax came King Richard; based on the true story of Venus and Serena Williams' ascension from teenage, tennis prodigies to global cultural icons, the gravitational focus on screen centers around their father, Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, in a note-perfect performance that is likely his finest display of acting in a decade's time. He's completely locked in here from the jump and knows exactly where to take every scene -- and how to play off the brilliant supporting cast. The same uncompromising belief that Richard has in his children's budding abilities echo that of Smith's own meta belief in the execution of this movie -- success is a foregone inevitability.

And I think he's proven right. Now this does not vault this into polling position for consideration as one of this year's best films, but I do think it's safe to presume that few movies will resonate with audiences more than King Richard in the coming weeks. There's a lot to like here: it's a thoroughly entertaining reminder about how undeniably great the Williams sisters were (and still are); it's precisely crafted and directed by the relatively unknown but soon-to-be-more-known, Reinaldo Marcus Green; and there is prudent but playful attention to genre-blending in its storytelling, which is what elevates this film above most other blandly-told biographies (the biopic / sports movie / coming-of-age mash-up is spun together carefully and effectively).

Rather than over-analyze every plot point, here's a 4-pack of reactions and reflections that have been ruminating in my brain since my viewing on Friday:

SPOLIERS APLENTY

  • Already kind of made this point but it's worth expounding upon: while King Richard still adheres to formula, this is a more thoughtfully considered character study than your run-of-the-mill biopic. It certainly benefits from a tighter-than-you'd-expect script (S/O to Zach Baylin). But I'd make the case that the overall production vibes (which I know is a very scientific term and line of reasoning) is what elevates the material; having both Venus and Serena (and Smith) participate as executive producers brings an increased credibility and coherence to every decision. It's notable that some sexist allegations have been served up against the film in the wake of its release -- the backlash is that instead of centering the story around two of the most successful black female athletes in sports and entertainment, the movie is focused on the sisters' father as a male savior of sort. This sounds like some whack, pseudo-progressive logic if you ask me. After conducting a tiresome ten seconds of research (exhausting work, I tell ya), it becomes obvious that unless this project was in complete creative alignment with the Williams sisters' vision, it wouldn't have been greenlit from the get-go. Production vibes for the win.

  • The craft and quality of filmmaking here will get lost in the hoopla of praise levied towards the casting and performances. Editor Pamela Martin has a sneaky accomplished filmography having previously worked on Little Miss Sunshine, Free State of Jones, The Fighter, and Battle of the Sexes (which now feels like a well-suited precursor for this job). Kris Bowers is a rising star in the film music arena, and his oversight and direction here felt fresh but also rooted in the genre-work at play. Robert Elswit has worked with some of the best filmmakers of the 21st century (Paul Thomas Anderson [6 times!], Dan Gilroy, [3 times] Tony Gilroy, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie, Judd Apatow, George Clooney, Stephen Gaghan, Ben Affleck), and his work here brings an extra dose of deliberate and professional execution. Lastly, Reinaldo Marcus Green deserves one more round of applause for his careful (but not too careful) direction. The character-driven scenes work just as well as the tennis montage sequences, and that balance is not easily found. I wasn't familiar with his work before seeing this movie (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell), but I'm excited to go back and track his directorial career going forward -- this guy knows what he's doing.


king richard 2King Richard [2021]

  • From top to bottom on the call sheet, this casting director nails every part. Aunjanue Ellis not only holds her own opposite Smith, but she actually commandeers some of the shine and steals a few of the scenes right from under him; Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play Venus and Serena respectively, are believable and compelling with or without a racket in their hand; Dylan McDermott, Kevin Dunn, and Tony Goldwyn represent a trio of white gatekeepers that credibly move the story along by slowing down the Williams family; and of course, the mighty Jon Bernthal swings into action about halfway through the runtime and dashes a little extra pizzaz to every moment he's on screen (like bringing in the hot sauce to some scrambled eggs halfway through brunch). Bernthal has been a character actor with something to prove this past decade (The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury, Sicario, Wind River, Baby Driver, Widows, The Peanut Butter Falcon, Ford v Ferrari, Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Many Saints of Newark, etc. -- can you believe this list?!); he's on a breakneck pace to becoming not only one of the hardest working and malleable performers around, but also your soon-to-be favorite.

  • The last point worth making is the key takeaway from the movie: not only is Will Smith the focal point of this movie, but his restraint and attention to detail is what makes this a revelatory performance within the context of his career. For decades, Smith has been one of the most recognizable and bankable stars working in Hollywood. Very few individuals can open and carry a movie on their name alone; even fewer of those individuals can do it for 30+ years; and almost no one, other than maybe Smith, has done it as successfully as a person of color in what is still an ill-diversified system of production and distribution. In all seriousness, Will Smith is an undisputed unicorn. With that being said, the past ten years haven't been as fruitful for Smith; there's been a lot of duds (Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, Bright), some extremely questionable vanity projects (After Earth, Gemini Man), and a couple of box office wins (Focus, Aladdin, Bad Boys for Life). His last serious attempt to kickstart some Oscar Buzz was for Concussion, which was highly regrettable and completely forgettable. It almost seemed like his star engine had run out of fuel. But now, in King Richard, a film which will propel him back into the forefront of movie culture, something feels different. In this role, Smith has completely transformed, and he's fully and convincingly embraced the art of character work. His performance is comprehensive and meticulous; there's a physicality (his hunched posture and specific voice pattern) to his performance, and Smith's ability to capture Richard's "uncompromising belief through unconventional means" is both ostentacious and measured. Don't get me wrong, he's absolutely going for it -- but not to the detriment of his subject's subtlety or nuance. Moreover, the portrayal here is fair and doesn't feel sugarcoated; the confrontation in the kitchen opposite his wife (Aunjanue Ellis's Brandy is excellent here as well) paints a clearer picture of Richard's shortcomings as a husband, father, and a man. We don't think of him as a king at this point, and in that way, his journey feels all the more relatable. By the film's end, Smith has earned the trust of the audience to know when not to go for the big, over-the-top speech and instead, opt for the quieter, but equally as powerful, choices. There is a gravitas here that is hard to explain, a power that really can only come from someone as famous as Smith or from an extremely talented, locked-in performer (so here we get a double-dip of charisma). I'm not sure anyone pulls this off as well as Smith does, and he'll surely be in consideration when the Oscar Buzzing starts up in the coming weeks.

Richard knew all along that his girls were destined for athletic glory and cultural royalty. Venus and Serena's unstoppable force and will is rooted in his guidance and influence. And in the end, he is coronated as a king -- not because of any birthright but by way of his daughters' ascension. Long may they reign.

king richard 3[Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images]

Froth

For some reason after landing one of these in my hand this past summer, I had an odd craving for that light, lager that feels like it would be right at home in an iced cooler courtside at a tennis club. Is Amstel Light a good beer? Compared to most of the froth we review on this website, the answer would obviously lean against it being 'good.' However, sometimes the assignment is trying to pin the tail on the donkey, and I do feel that this beer fit the bill for what I was watching. Match point.

Amstel Light
Lager - Light | 3.5%
Amstel Bier
@amstelbier

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