‘King Richard’ is an unabashed crowd-pleaser

Will Smith stars in this entertaining biopic centered on Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams

Brad Keefe
"King Richard"

There are some movies where not liking them says more about you than it does the movie.

Tastes are subjective, to be sure, but slickly produced movies built to be seen and enjoyed by large audiences need to be lauded for being unashamed, unabashed crowd-pleasers.

You can find flaws in “King Richard.” It’s literally my job to do so.

It’s also a job more serious critics take too seriously, breaking down the craft rather than stepping back and simply asking, does this movie bring me joy?

If “King Richard” doesn’t bring you joy, it’s not the fault of the filmmakers.

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Telling one of the great sports stories of our time in a light that’s both fresh and focused, the movie chronicles the early days of the tennis careers of Venus and Serena Williams.

The titular king is Richard Williams (Will Smith), the father of the two tennis prodigies and a man who meticulously crafted a 78-page plan for the long-term careers of his daughters.

Training his daughters on unkept tennis courts in Compton, California, Richard initially comes off as the media narrative of him at the time indicated: an overbearing, over-involved stage dad pressing his young children into a career path.

The movie reveals a bigger picture with the clarity of hindsight and the blessing of its subjects. Venus and Serena served as executive producers in a film that they believe gives a more accurate picture of their family.

The story benefits so much from this hindsight, it changes the tenor of the whole affair. When a prospective coach for the girls tells Richard, speaking of the elder Venus, that he might have “the next Michael Jordan” on his hands, Richard corrects him to say “the next two.”

That statement would be brazen if it didn’t turn out to be so spot-on.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green made a wise choice in a movie that’s more crowd-pleaser than awards bait. Expect Will Smith to be heavily in the Best Actor discussion again, but this is not a snobby year-end affair.

That’s perhaps because “King Richard” is not really a biopic at heart. It’s a sports movie, and a damn good one.

This isn’t to say that the family’s life in Compton that led to a thousand “Black girls from the inner-city make it big in a predominantly white sport” takes isn’t represented. Nor is the endless casual racism they endured.

But taking that step back to realize just how remarkable it is that two sisters became two of the greatest players in their sport is jaw-dropping, and this movie delivers that feeling.

Smith is supported by a fantastic performance from Aunjanue Ellis as the family matriarch Brandy, as well as Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton as young Venus and Serena, respectively, and Jon Bernthal and Tony Goldwyn as coaches in the pair’s formative years.

But it’s also called “King Richard” for a reason, and Smith is producing and starring for a reason. His portrayal of Richard is sympathetic but complex. It’s more audience bait than Oscar bait, and he deserves credit for that.

Is the movie, for lack of a better term, too basic at times? Yes. Artistic critiques of it have merit.

But if you disconnect and roll with it, it’s just an unabashedly fulfilling viewing experience. Any review that states otherwise tells you more about the critic than the film.

“King Richard”

Now playing in theaters

3 stars out of 5