Some 15 years after Will Smith gave one of his most authentic and enduring performances playing the real-life homeless salesman Chris Gardner in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” he delivers nomination-worthy work as another type of real-life salesman in “King Richard.”
Only, this time around, Smith isn’t selling portable bone-density scanners; he’s pitching the American dream, he’s banking on the incredible potential of his young tennis-playing daughters Venus and Serena – and he’s selling himself as their manager, their mentor, their father, their king who believes they will ascend to thrones as the undisputed queens of tennis.
Spoiler alert: Against all odds, Venus and Serena Williams actually delivered on their father’s seemingly unrealistic expectations, and have done pretty well on and off the tennis court through the years, winning a combined 30 Grand Slam events and changing the sport forever. We know the ending to this story, yet director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”), working from a finely honed script by Zach Braylin, has fashioned an exciting, inspirational, warmly funny and deeply involving sports movie about a father who came from nothing and was known by nobody, but was determined to the point of obsession to make sure everyone would know the names of his tennis prodigy daughters.
We “know” Will Smith as well as we know any major movie star/celebrity of the past 30+ years, yet Smith does a remarkable job of disappearing into the look, the mannerisms, the speech patterns and the persona of Richard, who always looks a little haggard and hunched over, as if he’s still recovering from the latest beatdown (physical or otherwise) life has laid on him.
“King Richard” kicks off in the Compton of the early 1990s, with Richard working night shifts as a security guard and his wife, Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Aunjanue Ellis), logging long hours as a nurse, while they raise their five daughters in a strict household where schoolwork is a priority and dad is always teaching life lessons, whether he’s delivering another lecture at home or driving the girls to public tennis courts where they plaster inspirational, homemade signs on the fences while hitting ball after ball after ball after ball – and then they hit some more, rain or shine, day or night. At times, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) roll their eyes at Daddy’s militaristic discipline and wish they could just be kids, but they clearly love the game, they’re obviously super-talented and they have infectious, winning personalities. They’re also as competitive as hell, and they’re in it to win it.
Still, this whole thing is nuts. Richard is nuts. As one prospective coach tells him before turning him down, he’s asking people to believe he has the next Mozart of tennis – make that the next TWO Mozarts of tennis – living in his house. (We’re constantly reminded that tennis has traditionally been a sport for the wealthy and the white.) Yet, despite resistance and skepticism from the established tennis community, not to mention the local gangs harassing the girls and beating the hell out of Richard, and a nosy neighbor across the street who thinks Richard is abusive and calls the cops on him, nothing will stop him and his mission to wake the world to the wonders that are Serena and Venus.
Eventually, Richard and the girls draw the attention of real-life tennis coaches Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and then Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), and kudos to both Goldwyn and Bernthal for overcoming the unfortunate hairstyles and tighty-tight tennis shorts of the time to create fully realized characters. (Bernthal is particularly effective at playing Macci, who becomes a long-term partner to Richard, and adores the girls and wants what’s best for them, but is constantly clashing with the infuriatingly headstrong Richard, who at times seems more concerned about what’s best for Richard than what’s best for his daughters.)
At times, “King Richard” feels a bit overlong, as certain messages are conveyed time and again. It also glosses over some of Richard’s dalliances and personal foibles – though there is a powerful and important scene relatively late in the film in which Oracene lays into Richard for making major decisions about the girls without consulting her and reminds him he hasn’t done this alone, that she’s been there every step of the way. And every step of the way, even when Venus and Serena are in their dad’s shadow, Sidney and Singleton are so strong and real, and likable and believable as the girls, they remind us the people most responsible for the success of Serena and Venus Williams – even more than King Richard – are Serena and Venus Williams.