'King Richard': Will Smith Shines in an Otherwise Standard Biopic
Updated: Jan 24
Venus and Serena Williams have had legendary careers in the world of tennis. Even people who don't follow tennis know who they are. So it would make sense for a movie to be made about them, but that's obviously not what we get here with King Richard. This film is primarily focused on Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, and how he pushed and trained them to become superstars in the world of tennis. Some might wonder why this focuses on him and not his daughters, and while it would have certainly made more sense for this to be more about Venus and Serena, it's clear that film is zeroing in on Richard Williams's unorthodox and extreme methods of training and his persistent nature in order to frame him as an inspirational figure who wants his daughters to succeed. While some might fall right into what the film is trying to accomplish, I couldn't help but feel that Williams is more of a complicated figure, and that the film is too concerned with making the viewer feel good to fully reckon with this.
I'll admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for a good inspirational sports movie. Sure, a lot of them are a bit formulaic, and you pretty much know where everything will end up, but there's something about them that I can't help but like. A lot of these films tend to center on the coach, and that seems to be the approach that this film takes. But where most films give the team they are coaching some time in the spotlight, this is definitely more about Richard Williams, which considering that the film is called King Richard, this isn't that big of a surprise. We do get plenty of scenes with Venus and Serena, but make no mistake, this is primarily about Richard. There has been some criticism about this from some people, with many saying that this should be about Venus and Serena instead. But considering that they are executive producers on this film, I feel that the argument is kind of moot. If they are that involved in the project, it's clear that they had quite a bit of say in the matter. It wouldn't surprise me if we do end up getting a full fledged film about the Williams sisters in the future, but for now, this is the film we have.
All that being said, I feel that the film is stronger when it chooses to be more about Venus Williams, and less about Richard Williams. It's not that he isn't a fascinating figure, but the film is too concerned with showing his drive and the love he has for his daughters, that it pushes the more problematic aspects of him to the side. The film does touch on how his training methods were rather intense, as well as his infidelities, and off-putting behavior, but it buries them in favor of making him more of a hero. I don't necessarily disagree with how the film portrays him, but I did have a hard time rooting for him at times. I'm all for showcasing the complicated nature of Richard Williams, but the film just doesn't bring the nuance needed to do that effectively.
Thankfully, the film has Will Smith playing Richard Williams, and I must say that he does a pretty good job. I don't know if I'm as gobsmacked as others seem to be, but I would argue that it is one of his better performances to date. There are moments where you can see him doing his whole schtick underneath everything, but he does have some genuinely great moments throughout the film. Especially when you look at videos of the real Richard Williams, you can see how well he adopts a lot of his mannerisms, and he ends up embodying his personality quite well. It's always interesting to see Will Smith take on these kind of roles, as most of his performances rely on his distinct persona. While there are shades of this here, it doesn't feel too out of place, as the confidence that Smith brings to so many of his characters lends itself nicely to his performance in this film. At the time of writing, Will Smith is considered to be the frontrunner to win Best Actor at this year's Oscars. While I think he is quite good here, I don't think I'm as big on his performance as others seem to be. That being said, I wouldn't be disappointed if he wins the Oscar, but I just don't think he'd be my pick.
Even though Will Smith has been getting the majority of the praise this film is getting, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the excellent supporting cast. Aunjanue Ellis stands out in particular, as she makes every second of her screen time count. Her character isn't in all that much of the film, but she is electric in all of her scenes. In a just world, she would be getting just as much attention as Will Smith, and would be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress. She takes what could have been a thankless role, and makes it memorable and engaging. Hopefully, as more people see this film, her contributions will get more recognition, as she truly deserves it. I was also quite impressed by Jon Bernthal, who plays against type here as the affable Rick Macci, who helps train Venus. Bernthal normally plays tough, scummy characters, so it is refreshing to see him play someone so innately likable. He's also a bit of a foil to Richard, as he counters his outspoken nature with a calmer and more laid-back personality. The scenes with Bernthal and Smith are quite good, and they play off each other so well. I also thought that Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton did a great job as Venus and Serena Williams, respectively. They both give solid performances here, and I hope that their careers will truly take off after this film.
Beyond the performances, I can't say that the rest of the film does a lot for me. Reinaldo Marcus Green is an okay director in my book, but between this and his previous film Joe Bell, it feels like he focuses a bit too much about the emotional impact of everything that he forgets to focus on the more intriguing moral and human aspects in the narrative. I will say that this comes across much better here than it does in Joe Bell, but it does lead to this film feeling pretty by the numbers overall. I can't fully blame Green, as he's doing a decent job here, and I think a lot of the issues are with the writing. The film wants to be about Richard Williams, but it fails to make it as interesting it should be. It's not totally boring, but it definitely feels lacking. So when it pivots to being a little more about Venus, it picks up considerably, and I would go as far as to say the back half of the film is much better than the front half. In all honesty, the film probably should have focused primarily on Venus and Serena, and have Richard be a supporting character. I think the film would have flowed just a little better, although it might have come at the cost of it being even more of a standard sports movie. Regardless, what we end up getting is perfectly fine, even if it does leave a bit to be desired.
This is the type of film that gets commonly referred to as a crowdpleaser. It focuses more on the positive aspects of the story it wants to tell, and seeks to inspire its audience. Do these types of films tend to hit the same beats? I'd say yes. But for so many people, these films are typically seen as uplifting and leave them with a sense of joy and encouragement. For me, it's a bit hit or miss. Some of these films are quite good, and some of them are just more of the same. I would say that King Richard largely falls into the latter category, but I can see this being the feel-good film of the year for a lot of people. And I will admit that while I have problems with it, I did leave this film feeling good. It starts off a bit rocky, but once it gets going, it ends up being fairly good. It's nothing spectacular in my book, and plays it pretty safe, but I can't be too mad at it. It will likely hit much bigger with others than it did me, but it's still pretty decent.