King Richard is a rare genuine crowd-pleaser with Will Smith’s best performance since Ali.
This review of the film King Richard does not contain spoilers.
King Richard is a film that Hollywood has in short supply these days. A film that’s exciting entertainment and told with a refreshing earnestness. Rags to riches, against all odds, not
one-two in a million based on an actual story yarn about never giving up on dreams. Albeit, told through, perhaps, a rose-colored lens. That’s okay though, never let that get in the way of a good story.
In his best performance since Ali, Will Smith stars as Richard Williams. A determined father wants to see all five of his daughters succeed, especially his two tennis prodigies — Venus (Saniyya Sidney, of the criminally canceled The Passage) and Serena (Demi Singleton). Along with his wife, Oracene “Brandy” Price (a wonderful Aunjanue L. Ellis), their schedules are packed 24/7 with five children, all daughters, in a two-bedroom house where Venus and Serena need to double up because they are short a bed. To say protecting five daughters is challenging is an understatement. Richard is consistently beaten and threatened by local gang members, who have an eye on his oldest daughter.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joel Bell) has crafted a remarkably earnest film that never veers from its point of view. Richard and his Brandy make sure the kids are always busy, working 24/7 to make sure they stave off the streets. It’s a striking theme of the film where their greatest job and investment is finding something their children are good at and molding into a productive work ethic. Their kids are their primary focus and attention. And that’s refreshing because even if these children did not have the potential to be future millionaires, they would always be their greatest investment.
What makes King Richard’s script so different is the central theme of Richard shielding his daughters from peaking too early and tumbling down the rabbit hole of teen celebrity. The screenplay by Zach Baylin (scribe of the upcoming Creed III) frequently brings up and references young female tennis stars who had well-known personal problems with mental health and drugs and alcohol. Is Richard driving his daughters into the ground day and night with drills? No. He wants them to have a well-rounded childhood that includes movie nights and trips to Disney World.
Smith’s performance is impeccably nuanced, which allows the viewer to question Richard’s true intentions. He shows shades of a loving father, then a crafty businessman. He can be an inventive coach, but then you wonder if he only sees his children as a way for his family to be supported, making him a marketing genius. He can be disarming, then a split-second later, alarmingly brutish. But you never blame him because he is watching over his kingdom. He is the Lion, the girls are his cubs, and his family is his pride in more ways than one.
The film’s strength is its comic relief. The best moments come when Smith’s Richard keeps interrupting renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) with his “open stance” technique. And I’m not sure I had more fun watching Jon Bernthal’s Rick Macci’s frustration continually build with Richard’s tactics that undermine his trust and generosity by making sure that he’s family and make sure he goes out with them to the seafood buffet because Rick is supposed to pay.
The film isn’t afraid to show Richard’s faults, but it is used as comedy fodder when it does. A scene between him and his wife touches on Richard’s history, referring to him never seeing his children from his first marriage (he was married three times, had children with other women, and his last marriage was to a woman around his daughter’s age). The difference here is it does not matter how many failed marriages he has — the parental style is filled with loving structure.
While Richard was portrayed as a loudmouth and overbearing, it was because he looked and did things differently than others who had been there before. While the film takes a critical eye at Richard being patronized based on his socioeconomic status, it rarely touches on the overt racism they suffered by trying to succeed in a lily-white world. Even Rick Macci’s tennis “university” was questioned decades ago because it was seen as a factory to take advantage of teenage athletes for profits. They never come into question here.
But like I said, never get bogged down with too much truth to tell a good story. After all, this is a movie, and the remarkable story should focus on how Williams defied the odds to achieve genuine, honest-to-god greatness. It’s a genuine crowd-pleaser with outstanding performances from Smith and Ellis. That rare film without the usual sports cliches. King Richard‘s a winning film with a confident formula that puts a premium on how raising a family with love always finds a way to success.