Movie Review: Will Smith grates, ingratiates and shines as “King Richard,” who Raised the Queens of Tennis

If this isn’t the way it was, it’s certainly the way it should have been.

“King Richard,” the story of the working class Black man who raised and “created” the greatest players in the history of women’s tennis — Serena and Venus Williams — depicts their controversial, “controlling” dad as a doting father whose research and “eyes on the prize” instincts were unerring as he nurtured them to stardom.

And if nothing else, that flies in the face of the way the (white) sports media vilified the man, a “hustler,” “egotistical” self-promoter whose gauche insistence on his “plan” to make them stars and the family rich seemed more and more unsavory the longer he kept his girls on that “plan.”

Will Smith brings his immense likability to the role in perhaps his best performance ever, emphasizing Richard Williams’ humor, the amusing, grammatically-challenged show-boater/philosophizer and prophet who dominated press coverage of the girls from the day they burst onto the scene and took it over, to well into their ’20s.

It’s a fun performance packed with a Daily Affirmation Calendar’s worth of Richard-isms.

“Fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

“I’m in the CHAMPIONS raising business.”

And, to men’s champions John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, whose coach (Tony Goldwyn) Williams barged in on and arm-twisted into taking on the sisters as a proteges, “One day you’re gon’be braggin’ about the day you met them!”

Zach Baylin’s script takes us through the early teens of the sisters, with Richard handing out biographical “BRO-chures” to tennis club teachers and famous coaches around Southern California, trying to wrangle free or at least affordable tutelage (for a share of future earnings) for the kids the self-taught father and mother had brought up in the game.

Kevin Dunn plays Vic Braden, who compares Williams’ “nobody will take this bet” quest to “trying to create two Mozarts.” Can’t be done.

Richard makes cheesy promotional videos of the girls, then in their tweens, to back up his pitch. And we see him brushed off and laughed off. A lot.

Then Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), coaching the fading McEnroe and current king of men’s tennis, Pete Sampras, takes the bait. We see him clash with King Richard as he tries to remake Venus’s game (she hit from an open stance when the going thought was that “power” in your groundstrokes came from turning your body to the side you were hitting from) and preach the time-tested path — “juniors” circuit, sponsorship, stardom in your teens.

The film shows Williams’ savvy instincts for “keeping them in school,” avoiding the “burn out” juniors tourney grind and being proven right when then star Jennifer Capriati rose to the top in her early teens, and was doing drugs and getting arrested before she was 20.

We see Richard stick to this, battling his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis, solid and fiery) over his controlling high-handedness. And we meet the often-exasperated coaching entrepreneur (these guys run their own “tennis academies”), Rick Macci, given a whimsical and adorable, “You’re KILLING me here” turn by Jon Bernthal.

Macci comes off as willing to endure Williams’ conniving, finagling and bull-sh—–g just to get to the very expensive (to him) finish line with these goldmines in skirts.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton play the older Venus and younger sister Serena, two daughters out of five (the others, sidelined in the film, are being pushed to academic excellence Dad insists), tighter-than-tight siblings who endure Dad’s “management” because of the confidence he’s built into them and the trust they have for his instincts.

The kids are so bubbly and upbeat they even spin their father’s efforts to protect all his daughters from hoodlums in “the ‘hood” (Compton) into a running gag.

“Dad got beat up again.”

We see Richard, a night security guard at a down-market flea-market “mall,” take that pummeling, and others, relate anecdotes about his rough, racially-disadvantaged upbringing in Louisiana, and persevere.

I love the lightness Smith brings to the part, making even Williams’ infamous boorishness — partly a pose, the film suggests — funny. Breaking wind to bust up a meeting with potential agents (Dylan McDermott, among them)? Again, if it didn’t happen, it should have.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s (“Monster and Men”) film boils down much of the backlash Richard Williams inspired into the occasional outburst by the two coaches played by Goldwyn and Bernthal, or sometimes articulated by his in the background but just as important wife.

From the way the girls and their dad are depicted, there’s a feeling that the sisters somehow controlled this narrative, or got assurances from Smith to their advantage. The story plays down any racism they faced in clubs and later on the tour. Yes, they had sportsmanship shortcomings later on, but “King Richard” is seen working overtime to “keep them humble,” tamp down the boorish bragging, even his own — well-publicized and not really seen here.

Producer/star Smith’s having a director with little clout and few credits and a screenwriter with almost none also points to “control.”

But that doesn’t hamstring the film. It only ensures the near-hagiography nature of the treatment of its subject. The story arc is pleasantly uplifting, and climaxes at Venus’s well-known and factually solid professional debut, in her mid-teens. And the characters are all likable, with even the villains only lightly villainous.

From watching and reading their saga as it played out, one could only imagine the worst of this “tennis parent” from hell and what he put his kids through. “King Richard” and Will Smith good-naturedly and affectionately upend that.

And as I say, if the story didn’t truly unfold this way, a folksy showboating sage pointing all along to great results and a happy ending, it certainly should have.

Rating: PG-13 for some violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references

Cast: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Dylan McDermott and Jon Bernthal

Credits: Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, scripted by Zach Baylin. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 2:18

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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