'King Richard' review: Will Smith gives the performance of his career in rousing biopic
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
You wouldn’t know it thanks to recent duds “Gemini Man,” “Bright” and “After Earth,” but Will Smith was the most bankable star in Hollywood who’s A-lister status could open any movie to solid box office returns (even “Wild Wild West” made some cash). Sans the Disney remake “Aladdin,” which was already established before it opened, Smith hasn’t had a real commercial hit worth touting since “The Pursuit of Happyness,” but he’s found his groove (and a potential Oscar) in the rousing, emotionally stirring biopic “King Richard.” Easily the best performance of his career, the film touts all the signature traits of a sturdy Smith vehicle and isn’t overwrought with manipulative cliches. It’s a crowd-pleaser that packs a ton of heart and manages to subvert expectations, delivering one of the best films of the year.
Within 10 minutes, you’ll get lost in Smith’s performance where he plays Richard Williams, father of probably the two best athletes in the world Venus and Serena Williams. Well into their 40s, both Tennis stars are going strong, having amassed 30 Grand Slam single titles and 14 double titles between them and their legacy and passion is closely monitored in the film. Some might find it problematic the Williams sisters aren’t headlining their own biopic and in the wrong hands, “King Richard'' might have lost sight of their accomplishments, but director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin makes sure everyone gets the spotlight without ever feeling rushed. Even Richard’s wife, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams (Aunjanue Ellis - outstanding) is given more to chew on than the obligatory supportive wife usually does. Every scene, every section feels completely realized down to the last detail.
“King Richard” quickly highlights Richard’s constant dedication to affording his children the best opportunities available. That includes soliciting nearby Tennis camps to daily training sessions in their local park in Compton before going to work the night shift as a security guard. The hustle never stops and Richard is always selling, rarely taking no for an answer. In fact, his stubbornness is what defines him, unafraid of criticizing award winning coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) after he agrees to take on Venus pro-bono: “You’re the most difficult person I’ve ever worked with” he says “and I’ve coached McEnroe.” Yet, it’s all part of the greater plan to turn them into the champions he knows they’ll eventually become.
It doesn’t hurt “King Richard” feels tailored made for Smith, handpicked to exemplify his best qualities: whether it be the teary-eyed intensity after the police show up on a bogus child welfare call, infusing clever comedic one liners during a major brand deal with Nike, or just the one-on-one tenderness shared with the two young actress’ playing his daughters, Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton. In any other movie, a scene where the main character forces their family to sit down and watch “Cinderella” so it can be used as a teaching lesson on humbleness would border on laughable, but Smith, bless him, finds a way to make it work.
Of course, Smith isn’t the only beacon of light in this wonderful movie, the aforementioned Ellis is outstanding playing Richard’s wife, weaving through a variety of emotions from anger, rage, and compassion all in one fell swoop. Likewise, Jon Bernthal’s comedic take on renowned tennis coach Rick Macci earns high praise and it’s doubtful you’ll see a better supporting performance this year. Together, along with Sidney and Singleton, they create a truly remarkable motion picture experience. Occasionally, you wish “King Richard” would push back on some of the controversial methods Richard used to teach his children and his often belligerent outbursts at reporters and coaches probably wouldn’t fly today.
But rarely does that distract from the film's breezy momentum as it pays tribute to both Venus and Serena and the loving relationship with their father. Smith and company deserve all the awards buzz coming down the pipeline, but the main takeaway is never about the attention or money, however, the dedication and hardwork that comes from a match well played. The film rallies the inspirational moments and soft emotional beats with subtle ease, serving up a winning hand about following your dreams and always looking for the best in each other.
KING RICHARD opens in theaters and on HBO MAX Friday, November 17th