'King Richard' review: Will Smith's inspirational, imperfect tennis dad is Oscar-ready – USA TODAY

Will Smith was an Oscar-nominated knockout as the title icon of “Ali” and stands out again as another sports figure, albeit a very different one, in “King Richard.”
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men”), the solid and well-acted biopic (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on HBO Max now) chronicles Richard Williams’ efforts to make tennis champs out of his daughters, Venus and Serena Williams. Smith brings passion and stubbornness to Richard, a controversial figure in some corners and a devoted dad in others. The movie itself is a rousing if familiar sports drama that takes care of the surface-level narrative but doesn’t delve deeply enough into the meatier stuff, at times seeming to have the wrong focal point.
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Set in the early 1990s, the movie begins in Compton, California, where Richard is a security guard by night and tennis coach by day, driving Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) to worn courts where positive messages are put up on fencing and Richard is never far from his grocery cart full of balls, even in the pouring rain. Before the girls were born, he wrote a 78-page manifesto about making them champions – and role models for a generation of Black girls. Now he just has to find someone to believe in them as much he does while also dealing with local criminals and racist neighbors.
It’s when people outside the large Williams family see Venus and Serena as “the next two” Michael Jordans that their lives – and the movie – hit the right groove. Venus’ first coach, Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), gets her into the junior tennis circuit, where Venus starts beating everybody, and then the clan moves cross-country to Florida so both of the girls can train under Jennifer Capriati’s mentor, Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal).
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Richard has an ornery streak, however, which alienates those around him and threatens to drive a wedge within the family. His wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), takes him to task for not bringing her into major decisions involving the sisters, and Richard’s decision to delay Venus’ professional debut because he’s unsure she’s ready for the spotlight leads to a teary confrontation between father and daughter.
Smith is a naturally charismatic figure, but he loses himself in this flawed figure with a Louisiana drawl and a very specific, headstrong mindset that often stirs up trouble. It’s a role that balances being irascible and unlikable at times, and Smith serves up the nuance in one of his best roles – one that seems destined to bring him back to the Academy Awards.
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Ellis also is exceptional (and earns quite a bit of Oscar consideration herself) as Oracene, the quietly strong-willed mother working double shifts but also taking the reins in training Serena. Sidney and Singleton are talented fresh faces just as integral to the film as their on-screen parents, while Bernthal sets aside his usual tough-guy roles to play a positive character in the family’s lives (though Rick and Richard frequently butt heads).
Zach Baylin’s screenplay follows the Williamses through Venus’ first pro tournament, though it’s not quite the usual underdog sports story because Venus and Serena were teenage wunderkinds. The movie hits the big moments but misses the little ones, not taking the time to investigate the intriguing relationship between Richard and Oracene or what’s going on in the sisters’ heads. The dad is almost always at the center, even when the movie shifts to Venus and Serena as the most important characters, which undercuts the siblings’ story. 
“King Richard” definitely succeeds, though, with its inspirational message, and Smith reigns playing a flawed man who’s just the right match for the A-lister’s talents.


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