Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, as its title suggests, centers itself on an unconventional networker, of sorts. Driving around Los Angeles in a ramshackle VW bus, early on we witness Richard Williams (Will Smith) focused on finding a coach for his daughters, whom he is hell-bent on molding into tennis prodigies. But his hiring approach consists of showing up on the doorstep of locally renowned trainers and relatively hounding them for attention, giving out handmade pamphlets touting his daughters’ stats and proposing that they get coached for free. His assertive request makes the entire pursuit seem ludicrous, except that he knows what the viewers do: His daughters are Venus and Serena Williams.
And such an opening sets the groundwork for the strange tension of King Richard, a sports biopic about the patriarch who helped shepherd the careers of two of the greatest tennis players to ever set foot on the court. Early on in the film, only he truly understands how special his daughters are, but for viewers, there’s little mystery as to whether Venus and Serena are talented. And you may very well sit and wonder why a movie about these two titanic athletes are having their story be told from the perspective of their dad. There is no doubt of him being a notoriously unorthodox figure: The first thing we learn about Venus and Serena’s father in this fully authorized, glossy-as-it-gets love letter of a movie (that the sisters executive produced) is that Williams wrote a 78-page plan outlining their entire careers before they were born. His zealousness was undoubtedly transformative, but their skill was what carried them to fame. So why focus on the “king”?
Then, about thirty 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’ oddball approach to life drives much of the movie’s suspense. Green’s film, written by Zach Baylin, 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.
But even with that, Green keeps his biopic quite light on its toes, having Smith spend most of it in a comic register; his pissing contests with the girls’ other high-profile coach (Jon Bernthal) are full of well-honed laughs, as is the scene where he ends a sponsorship meeting by literally farting away a six-figure deal. Robert Elswit’s warm and inviting cinematography seems to take its cues from these moments, always emphasizing potential over pressure, and hope over desperation. That’s one of many reasons why King Richard is such an easy film to sit through: The film embodies its namesake’s oft-repeated — if increasingly suspect — ethos of making sure that fun comes first. And much of that comes from Smith, who, mostly recently, has seemingly focused on roles that reflect his legacy as an A-lister. But his two past Oscar nominations — 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 a hunched, awkward shuffle, and he speaks in ornery monologues in a Louisiana drawl, often whipped into passionate anger by the smallest slights.
But for all his unpredictability, Smith makes sure to communicate the peculiar twinkle in Williams’ 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 narrative 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’ 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. It’s a pretty interesting character contradiction, as Williams has been hauling his kids to the courts practically from infancy, working with his wife, Oracene Price (Aunjanue Ellis), to mold them into perfect athletes. It’s a contradiction that clearly fascinates Green, 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 irritation 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 a bland sports-movie arc, Williams’ forceful personality rears its head again. Watching Williams’ erraticism uncomfortably mesh his surroundings can be as pleasurable as watching Venus come into her own. The film’s Big-Match finale centers itself on her, and again doesn’t revolve around her athletic prowess 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. If the screenplay is slow to recognize that Williams could sincerely love his daughters and be pathologically self-absorbed, Smith’s performance doesn’t allow for any such mutual exclusivity. Smith renders Williams as a larger-than-life figure locked in an endless tiebreak with his own sense of worth. He’s a stubborn, controlling, and unfathomably tenacious man whose success left behind just enough friction to justify being the subject of his very own biopic. Plenty warm and earnest, King Richard provides a perspective and certain specificities that enliven the sports biopic genre while also still playing some of the beats.
King Richard is playing in Theaters nationwide and is available to stream on HBO Max