The protagonist of Reinaldo Marcus Green’s new film, King Richard, is, to put it mildly, an unconventional networker. Driving around Los Angeles in a ramshackle VW bus, Richard Williams (played by Will Smith) is focused on finding a coach for his daughters, whom he is hell-bent on molding into tennis prodigies. But his hiring approach amounts to showing up on the doorstep of locally renowned trainers and hounding them for attention, giving out handmade pamphlets touting his daughters’ stats and proposing that they get coached for free. His brash request makes the entire enterprise seem ludicrous, except that he knows what the viewers do: His daughters are Venus and Serena Williams.
Therein lies the strange tension of King Richard, a sports biopic about the patriarch who helped shepherd the careers of two of the most famous tennis players in history. When the film begins, only he truly understands how special his daughters are, but for viewers, there’s little mystery as to whether Venus and Serena are talented. For all of King Richard’s opening act, I found myself wondering why a movie about these two titanic athletes was telling their story from the perspective of their dad. A notoriously unorthodox figure, Richard Williams decided his daughters would be tennis stars when Venus was just 4 years old, wrote a 78-page manifesto planning their careers, and started training them at local courts in Compton. His zeal was undoubtedly transformative, but their skill was what carried them to fame. So why focus on the “king”?
Then, about 30 minutes into King Richard, Williams finally gets Venus (Saniyya Sidney) in front of Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), an L.A. coach who’s worked with luminaries such as Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, and Venus unsurprisingly crushes the audition. That’s why the movie is King Richard and not, say, Queen Venus—the girls’ talent, while stunning, is free of narrative tension, whereas Williams’s oddball approach to life drives much of the movie’s suspense. Green’s film, written by Zach Baylin and executive-produced by the Williams sisters, functions best as a tribute to their atypical upbringing, celebrating the father who put them on their path while also casting some healthy skepticism on his somewhat maniacal mission.
Of late, Will Smith has focused on roles that reflect his legacy as an A-lister, in action films with a retrospective touch such as Bad Boys for Life and Gemini Man. But his two Oscar nominations—for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness—both came from biopics that had him physically transform from his usual star image but still tap into the charisma that made him famous. King Richard exists along those lines. As Williams, Smith’s hair is graying, he walks with a bit of an awkward shuffle, and he speaks in ornery monologues, often whipped into passionate anger by the smallest slights.
But for all his unpredictability, Smith makes sure to communicate the peculiar twinkle in Williams’s eye, and the singular charm he wielded long before his daughters’ fame carried the entire family to fortune and success. The stakes of King Richard’s plot ride on characters in the film understanding his genuine commitment to guiding his daughters and overlooking his eccentricities; later on, as Venus and Serena are more established in the tennis world, Williams’s motive shifts from trying to elevate them to trying to protect them from growing up too fast, aggressively beating back attempts to put them on the fast track to the pros.
Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? After all, Williams was the one who hauled his kids to tennis courts practically from infancy, working with his wife, Oracene Price (played by the wonderful Aunjanue Ellis), to mold them into perfect athletes. The answer is yes, but that contradiction clearly fascinates Green and Baylin, and keeps King Richard from feeling like an ordinary sports biopic essaying a traditional Cinderella story. Williams is a frustratingly inconsistent man: As Price notes during one confrontation, he was an absent father to five children he had with another woman, and his fits of pique sometimes alienate Venus and Serena, who are desperate to prove themselves even as he tries to slow their ascent in the name of preserving their teenage normalcy.
Anytime King Richard threatens to follow an anodyne sports-movie arc, Williams’s forceful personality rears its head again. He has an enjoyably goofy love-hate relationship with the sincere coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who works with Venus and wants to put her on the traditional road to stardom. Watching Williams’s erraticism uncomfortably mesh with Macci’s single-minded enthusiasm is just as delightful as watching Venus come into her own; the final tableau, set during her first professional tournament, again doesn’t revolve around her athletic prowess (which is never in doubt) but shows her learning to cope with the larger pressures of fame, and the roundabout ways her dad has prepared her for the big moments. That’s what makes King Richard an unexpectedly compelling sports film: its focus on the subtle chaos bubbling just outside of the game, personified by one complicated, impassioned figure.