Richard Williams (Will Smith) and his wife Oracene (Aunjaune Ellis) work tirelessly to ensure that their daughters, Serena and Venus, (Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney), make their way in the world as tennis champions. Though he is bull-headed and his methods seem unusual, Richard's plan slowly begins to bear to fruit as their skills develop, eventually reaching tennis coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal)...
Biopics are no strangers at the Oscars.
They take in a person's life, explain why they did what they did, places it inside a cinematic narrative, and the cast gets to wear some cool wigs and everyone goes home to check Wikipedia and see if it was accurate. 'King Richard' follows the tried-and-tested formula of sports biopics, but unusually, it's not about the athlete but about the coach. Here, we find Serena and Venus Williams - two of the greatest tennis players of all time - not so much reduced, but rather sidelined to plot points rather than active characters. In many scenes, they're quite literally in the backseat of Richard Williams' cramped van while he and his wife are in the front.
Will Smith, likewise, is no stranger to biopics or the Oscars. Michael Mann's overlooked 'Ali' saw Smith embody the spirit of Muhammad Ali in what's easily one of his best on-screen performances. Here in 'King Richard', Smith is doing his damnedest to shake off his public persona and adopt the character, right down to the teeth and the physical presence. His committed portrayal of Richard Williams holds the movie together in so many ways, often to the point where it eclipses some of the very rote changes in the story or the so-so writing from Zach Baylin. As much as he's front and centre and is giving it his all, you can't help but feel like 'King Richard' is trying to knock it over the net instead of playing a smarter game.
Time and again in 'King Richard', it pumps the brakes to go in for a teachable moment and emphasises how Richard Williams was eventually proven right on everything. Smith's performance has utter conviction, and so to does his character's belief. Not once in the movie does it even dare suggest that he might be wrong, or more than that, that Richard Williams was anything less than an utterly devoted parent. It's true, he zeroed in his whole attention of Serena and Venus, yet his other children are effectively never mentioned. The movie is so concerned with Richard's plan for Serena and Venus that it doesn't give a chance to examine what it must be like to live in that household as someone other than Serena or Venus. That the two sisters are executive producers on this shouldn't come as a shock for how sanitised it is.
Yet, despite this, it's still a reasonably well-executed biopic. Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney are able to hold their own, and Aunjanue Ellis in particular is able to counterbalance the prickly nature as Oracene Price. Jon Bernthal, meanwhile, plays Rick Macci like he's taking rips of coke every five seconds, while Tony Goldwyn is able to play preppy in his sleep. Reinaldo Marcus Green's direction feels confident and assured, merely happy to let the outsized performances by Will Smith do the work and allowing enough period detail to seep into give it a sense of time and place. Odds are 'King Richard' will pick up a couple of nominations come award season, but given how it fails to make an impact beyond a strong performance by Smith, it's unlikely that it'll have the same success as its subject matter. There's not enough beyond the surface to make it truly special, meaning that 'King Richard' succeeds rather than excels.