King Richard: Too Much Richard, not Enough Venus




Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Warner Bros. Pictures, 145 minutes, PG-13 (language, violence, sexual reference)





Before the slap heard ‘round the world, Will Smith starred in the biopic King Richard. As you no doubt know, he won an Oscar for that performance. It might renew interest in a movie that flopped badly at the box office. Should it? I have mixed feeling about that.


Smith assumed the role of Richard Williams, the father of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, played by young actresses Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton respectively. The movie only takes us through 14-year-old Venus’ professional debut in 1994 and her second-round loss to Aranxa Sánchez Vicario (Marcela Zacharías), who resorted to dirty tricks to get back into a match she was losing. The subsequent rise of Venus and Serena to the top of tennis world is relegated to a postscript.


The movie has been criticized for being too much about Richard, shortchanging the coaching done by his then-wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), and portraying the skills of his daughters as his own doing. These are valid complaints. King Richard is at its best in capturing the Zeitgeist of the 1980s when race was an obstacle the entire Williams family had to hurdle. In the 1950s, Althea Gibson starred, but she dented rather than knocked down racial barriers and quit competitive tennis for golf. Women’s tennis remained predominantly lily white until the emergence of the Williams sisters.


The tennis establishment was reluctant to accept that two Black kids from the Compton section of Los Angeles drilled and coached by their parents could compete with well-heeled and extensively-trained white kids. A lot of sports films suffer from Hoosiers syndrome, the big buildup in which adversity yields to triumph; King Richard is no exception, though it gets the racism right. We see Richard meet polite rejection–racism with a smile–as he sought professionals to help his daughters receive the same advantages as white girls. We watch Richard try hard to keep himself and his family safe and out of trouble in a neighborhood marked by drugs, gangs, and guns. Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) took a chance, sponsored their move to Florida and into a new life. You know the rest.


The film skirts or merely mentions a lot of controversy. It shows Richard as obsessed and pigheaded, which most insiders say was so. He also thought he knew better than anyone else. He deserves kudos for making sure his brood–Venus and Serena were his biological daughters but he also helped raise three that Oracene had with her first husband–got to be kids first. I can’t comment on the veracity of those who said he wasn’t the coaching genius he fancied himself or that he wasn’t the shrewd bargainer the film depicts. The film hints that Oracene was more instrumental in the latter.


If Althea Gibson was the Jackie Robinson of tennis for Black women, Venus Williams was its Michael Jordan. Her success made from age 14 on made it cool and possible for other Black girls to bring color to center court. She has won 49 titles to date, though at age 41 and many injuries she is now ranked #407 in a sport in which most tour players are about half her age. With 23 Grand Slam titles, Serena is arguably the greatest female tennis star in history. * (At age 40 she is ranked #224, but she picks her tournaments and thus doesn’t rack up ranking points.)


It's a wonderful story, but merely a middling film. I’ll just come and say that Will Smith gave a good performance, but not one worthy of the Best Actor Oscar he was given. Both Ellis, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and young Sidney were far more deserving of honors than he. In my view, Smith didn’t warrant a nomination let alone the hardware.


At 145 minutes King Richard suffers from being too long. Zach Baylin’s script sheds too much light on Richard and comes close to deifying him. His role was important, but let us not forget that his was reflected glory. Serena is a near afterthought and the inference is that she was several years, not one, younger than Venus. I can’t help but think that a film titled The Williams Sisters with Richard in a supporting role would have been a much stronger film. Credit, though, to cinematographer Robert Elswit for making the tennis look like actual tennis, even if the power of pre-teen Venus was enhanced a bit.


Overall, King Richard is a quintessential 3 of 5 movie, worthwhile but not a classic.


Rob Weir


*FYI, the debate is whether the greatest female tennis champion is Serena or Martina Navratilova. Flip a coin.  


Bewilderment: Too Grim?



By Richard Powers

W. W. Norton, 278 pages.





I admire the zeal of Richard Powers and enjoyed immensely his 2019 novel The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Alas, his newest novel, Bewilderment, is, well, bewildering. It’s not that I don’t agree with Powers that climate change and political chaos are existential threats. As a work of literature, though, the truth an author speaks is no excuse for a lack of nuance and a jejune style.


The storyline involves widower Theo(dore) Bryne and his son Robin, aka/ “Robbie.” Both are adrift after the tragic death of Aly(ssa), the glue who that kept everything together. That took some doing, as Theo is a busy University of Wisconsin astrobiologist looking for life signatures in outer space and Robbie has been diagnosed as autistic. In the book’s most astute passage Theo notes that he has been told that Robbie is “on the spectrum” and muses, “Aren’t we all on the spectrum?”


Good line, but that doesn’t help Robbie whose lashing out and poor impulse control are definitely a handful for his teachers, though they also agree he’s creative and smart. At age 9, though, I doubt he’s smart enough to hold the complex science discussions he has with his father in their camping sojourn to the Great Smokies. I also doubt that a professional educator would pull his special needs kid from school for a week to bond in the boonies. Especially one already on the radar of Child Protectors.


Those science discussions–which occur throughout the book–are among the places where Bewilderment grows ponderous. Far too often potentially genuine father/son emotions give way to mini lectures. Powers knows his stuff, but these make for striking tonal breaks and give the novel the feeling of having been scotch-taped together. This is true also of attempts to give his narrative contemporary relevance via stand-in references. For example, Inga Adler is Greta Thunberg and there are nods to threats from a rightwing president. I can’t imagine whom that could be! Madison has Ted-like talks that are called COG talks; reverse the letters. Theo’s NexGen project is SETI with a fake moustache. Again, pretty ham-handed. If we toss in flights into science fiction–Theo loves the stuff and Robbie likes comic books–the lines between science and speculation blur Powers’ thesis that humankind is on a one-way street to extinction, Bewilderment is thus a very depressing novel. Even if Powers is right–and he may be–what are we to do with all of this? 


More to the point, why bother with subplots? Theo is trying his best but failing to keep up with his research, recover from Aly’s death, or raise a kid with emotional and social adjustment problems. Temporary hope appears from an unlikely source: Martin Currier, a colleague that Theo distrusts because he once held a torch for Aly. Martin is working on an artificial intelligence neurofeedback program that uses a specialized scanner (fMRI). Robbie becomes both a subject and a boy transformed into an activist, artist, and empath. Even some of his wildest autistic dreams appear feasible. The deal is, though, Theo wants Robbie’s identity to be completely anonymous lest he become part of a media circus.


Powers would have it that he who lives by AI dies by AI. AI exposes Robbie’s identity. Let the circus begin in front of Congress and in the dark light of a president who is successful at overturning an election. Two steps forward, four steps back. Everything spirals out of control and the only open question is whether a pandemic, climate change, or civil war will hasten the end. If it’s all over now Baby Blue, does the fate of any individual matter? It answers Theo’s question: “Was the mind of God inclined toward life, or did we Earthlings have no business being here?”


Powers is not the first to write a dystopian novel, nor will he be the last. Most who pen one avoid the sermon, leave readers with a glimmer of hope, or simply write with more elegance. Because Powers does not I must return to an earlier question of my own. What does he want us to do with all of this?


Rob Weir


Our Country Friends a Covid Black Comedy



By Gary Shteyngart

Random House, 336 pages





Remember how there was a spate of novels about 9/11 once the shock and mourning faded? (My favorites were by Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jess Walter.)  It may or may not be time for a Covid fiction now, but Gary Shteyngart has weighed in with Our Country Friends. It takes us back to the pandemic’s early days when fear was high and precise information was spotty. Shteyngart gets credit for a unique twist on matters–including large doses of black humor–though in my estimation his novel falls short of being a great one or equal to his past efforts such as Lake Success (2018) or Super Sad True Love Story (2010).


Shteyngart was born in the former Soviet Union and perhaps writes a bit of himself into lead character Sasha Senderovsky, a New York City-based script writer in his 50s who is in desperate need of revitalizing his flagging career. His plan is an unusual one; he and his wife Masha, a psychiatrist, and their precocious adopted Chinese daughter Natasha–who wants to be called “Nat”–flee the city when Covid hits and invest in a cluster of cabins in the Catskills with the notion of establishing a retreat for creative people. (I envisioned something along the lines of New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony.) Sasha’s ulterior motive is to lure an acquaintance identified only as “The Actor” to stay there and convince him to rework one of Sasha’s old (and unsold) scripts into a TV comedy. He also invites his best friend Vinod Mehta, a former professor; social media influencer, essayist, and blonde knockout Dee; aging good-time playboy Ed Kim; and Korean-American app developer Karen Cho, a remote cousin of Ed.


It is typical of Sasha to impose upon those in his inner circle, as he’s at heart an egoist who uses people for his own aggrandizement. Dee is a former acting student of Sasha’s, for instance, and he’s so jealous of a book Vinod wrote that he told his putative “brother” that it was unpublishable. Sasha certainly has no clue about country living or anything as practical as a sensible budget. Locals know to smile when he buys expensive comestibles, gouge him for repairs, and stay off the highway when he’s behind the wheel, if one can dignify his high-speed weaves along county roads with the term driving. Sasha is convinced that he’s a popular guy, but the locals dislike him so much that seemingly threatening things occur.  


Masha is the resident virus-worrier even though everyone insists, “I don’t have it.” “It” is an appropriate term; if you recall, no one was sure was “it” was when it first appeared. As a literary device, though, you can pretty much predict that someone will have “it.” Plus, things go very wrong when Karen dusts off “Tröö Feelings,” allegedly a tool to help people figure out their attractiveness to each other, but which ends up being more of an aphrodisiac than an app. Try maintaining social distancing with that floating around.


Bet on hurt feelings, musical beds, personality clashes, discomforting revelations, and lots of stuff that goes wrong. Our Country Friends plays off various clashes–urban versus rural, immigrant versus native-born, art versus popular culture, and well-heeled snobs versus redneck, white, and blue-collar locals. The creatives and their circle are so out of place that their inherent flaws spin out like drunken tops. Even Nat has issues. She’s sullen, furious with her parents, is obsessed with K-pop, wants Karen to teach her Korean, and might be on the spectrum. Shteyngart overlays his modern morality play with references and parallels to Chekov, especially Uncle Vanya, and to The Decameron, Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of Black Death stories.  


Shteyngart’s novel is often quite funny, though perhaps not everywhere he thinks it is. There are plot devices that, depending upon your proclivities, are either deeply ironic or incredulity-stretching contrivances. I lean toward the second, especially when it comes to Tröö Feelings and a setup involving Steve the Groundhog. I’d call Our Country Friends an entertaining read, but an uneven one. I’ll leave to you to decide if that’s because it’s too soon for a comedy of manners about Covid.


Rob Weir