Written by Patrick Hao
I forgot how good of a movie star Will Smith is. Maybe because Smith hasn’t really been able to shine as a movie star since Focus. Maybe it’s because he has crafted an overly upbeat, created by an algorithm online social media persona. But geez, King Richard only works because Will Smith is a goddamn bonafide movie star.
While formally King Richard is entirely rote and average, its conception is weird. King Richard is a biopic, not of Venus or Serena Williams, the famous tennis stars, but of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) as he gets the two the training that they need to become who they would become, all while instilling wholesome values of family and work ethic. It seems strange for a biopic and sports drama whose subject is the father of the famous athlete until it is revealed that the Williams sisters had a big part in the production of the film. The film portrays the idealized family, struggling in poverty in Compton, but trying to rise above classicism and racism to become icons.
Early on, Richard Williams composes a document detailing how he would get his daughters to success. This includes getting them lessons from renowned coaches like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) through sheer force of will. The film delves a bit into William’s short-tempered-ness and a brief hankering over how he is working his daughters to the bone, but overall the film takes a decidedly approving attitude towards Williams’s treatment of his daughters. The film only provides thin sketches of the Williams sisters as there are just mere conduits to celebrate the persistence of their father.
This is all well and good because we know the results of Richard Williams’s persistence. But, the film’s choice to not interrogate Williams as a person or his methods belies how this film is a vanity project celebration of two of the producer’s father. This is especially apparent as the film casts a judgemental eye towards other parents overburdening their children with the pressure of becoming a great sports star. The story is too clean and simple. Slight changes to the tone could easily make this film about the toxicity of a father. Instead the film, rightly or wrongly, focuses on the Horatio Alger aspects of the film. There is some pushback from Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Wallis), the matriarch of the family who is just as instrumental as a coach and parent to the success of Venus and Serena as Richard. But, she ultimately supports her husband’s actions as their relationship is portrayed ideally with no sense of true marital strife, despite later divorcing after the events of the movie.
Yet, despite it all, the film works on Smith’s sheer movie stardom. He infuses Williams with an affable poeticism. His ticks do not seem to mirror the real-life Williams but work for the character he is portraying. He is hunched, burdened by life unspoken, and thinks faster than he can speak. This is a similar type of down-home performance by Smith that was previously able to carry the cloying sentimentality of a project like The Pursuit of Happiness to a rousing success.
Rousing success is the goal of this film too. It is hard not to root for Williams and the Williams sisters. They have been part of pop culture for almost three decades now. The sports scenes are also filmed with workmanlike quality that is hard to resist as well. Like Richard Williams’ persistence to make his daughters a success, Will Smith’s persistence makes King Richard a success.
King Richard Trailer
King Richard is in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.