Princes grow up into Kings, and Will Smith is definitely in charge of the castle in Reinaldo Marcus Green's King Richard, a biopic-cum-family-friendly-sports-flick about the exceptional Williams family and its two tennis prodigies. It's great to see a mass-market piece take to the silver screen with a clear message and a less than conventional angle to a sporting success story, but despite a convincing and larger-than-life presence by the Fresh Prince himself, the dynamo behind the film is oddly transparent and difficult pin down. King Richard is a house divided, and for some viewers that will more than they can stand.
The film hints that there is a bit more to the seemingly benevolent, if hypocritical, Williams patriarch, but never goes beyond a saccharine depiction of a man who could by all means be a much more divisive figure for viewers. Though it's difficult to disagree with the film's message of resilience, humility and dedication, the "father-knows-best" attitude marginalises the women of the film, while the use of race as a defense for Richard's behaviour is another disappointing simplification of what could be a much more complex character shaped by these adversities and prejudice rather than simply reacting to them. We're given hints that all is not well in Richard's castle, with references to infidelity, marital strife, and a protectiveness that leans towards stifling, but these are inevitably smoothed out by some Jupiterian concession or feel good moment where he sits down with his kids, dispensing fatherly wisdom with a less than even hand. King Richard is poised on a tightrope between two disparate but not irreconcilable themes; a celebration of the Williams family and the achievements of two young women, or an insight into the man who in many ways made it possible.
For me the scenes where Richard is portrayed as an imperfect father with a chip on his shoulder, where the demands he places on the people around him are shown as more than just a necessity on Venus and Serena's path to greatness, are the most engaging aspects of the piece. And for all the talk of the titular monarch, the performances of Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Aunjanue Ellis as Venus, Serena and "Brandy" Williams respectively are top-notch. Still, the film never really decides what it wants to do with the younger of the star pair, another unfortunate result of the confusion between biopic and family friendly flick that seems to run through the production. Inevitably these half-measures add up, compromising what should be an interesting take on a well worn genre.
It's hard not to get sucked into the Williams' story and all its ups and downs, but the treatment given here is just too opaque to be particularly inspiring.