While this may be Will Smith’s best performance in years, “King Richard” is an ensemble piece with a great cast that tells the story of the man who raised Venus and Serena Williams, molding them to be the superstar athletes they are today. It’s the feel-good film of the year, perfect for the whole family, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, dramatic interludes, and enough heartfelt moments that movie theatres should include a pack of tissues with every bag of popcorn.

Smith plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), plus three other daughters (and a few more offspring not accounted for), living in Compton with wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), the two raising their girls to be successful in life. It’s a remarkable story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t true especially since Richard wrote a 78-page outline detailing how he planned to make his daughters the two best tennis players in the world. It’s amazing that he accomplished his goal and even more amazing that his plan was written before the girls were born.

The biopic is a Cinderella story, albeit a ghetto version, according to the outspoken Mr. Williams who incorporates the Disney animated classic into a lesson on humility after he mistakes his daughters’ victory celebration after a tennis tournament for bragging. When French writer Charles Perrault wrote the fairy tale in 1697 it was much more than a rags-to-riches story, as is Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard.” According to the author, the moral of the fairy tale was that sometimes we need someone outside the family to get involved and help, like a “fairy godmother.” While Richard would take 100% credit for Venus and Serena’s success (Oracene was the real VIP sharing coaching duties while keeping the family intact), there were a couple of magical mentors along the way. In this case, it was tennis coaches Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) and Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn).

The story begins in the 90s with Oracene working days as a nurse and Richard working nights as a security guard. The two take turns coaching Venus and Serena on the tattered courts of Compton, although the film concentrates on Richard so there are only a few minutes of Oracene on the court. Writer Zach Baylin and Ellis’ first-rate performance drive the point that she played a pivotal role in the girls’ success. There is a great scene where Ellis gets to shine as we watch her, fed up with the lack of respect from Richard, go off on him in the kitchen. She reveals that it was her devotion to God and the girls that kept her in the marriage, even though she showed Richard nothing but respect.

We watch as Richard tries to find the girls a professional coach — one that will train them for free after witnessing their skills — this leads to some very funny moments including the initial meeting with Cohen who is in the middle of a training session with John McEnroe and Pete Sampras when Richard crashes the Brentwood Country Club asking Cohen to let the sisters hit some balls. He notices Venus’ power in her stroke and agrees to train her for free while Serena is left to continue her sessions with mom in Compton. Good thing that Richard used a camcorder to videotape Cohen’s training sessions with Venus which Oracene uses to coach Serena.

For me, the “fairy godmothers” in the film, aka tennis coaches, are some of the film’s best moments. It’s refreshing to see Goldwyn, who starred in “Scandal” and “Lovecraft Country”, in a lighter role, likewise for Bernthal who usually plays the heavy in films that include “The Punisher” and his scene-stealing performances on the AMC series “The Walking Dead.” Bernthal is a hoot to watch as the ace coach agrees to train both Williams sisters — in exchange for a percentage of their future profits — while trying to deal with Richard’s difficult demands. It’s a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Despite roles in major films that include “Hidden Figures” and “Fences”, Saniyya Sidney delivers a breakthrough performance as Venus. This is her story just as much as it is Richard’s. And while Serena can be seen as surpassing Venus’ success — both were ranked #1 in the world and have won numerous single titles but Serena’s wins and weeks at the top outnumber her sister’s — the era covered in Green’s film highlights the emergence of Venus as a champion player. Serena’s rise happened after the events in “King Richard” so maybe there’s a sequel in there somewhere. Still, the rivalry never comes between the girls, always supporting each other, who are still very close today.

For a 2-hour and 26-minute film, “King Richard” moves along at a brisk pace. The film never becomes stagnant, injecting the perfect balance of comedy and drama in between the action. It’s very entertaining, a testament to Green who, despite last year’s “Joe Bell” with a miscast Mark Wahlberg, bounces back with a biopic that features an ideal cast. From the supporting roles to the cameos, Green gets it right.

Smith injects his playful charisma into the role of Richard, keeping the domineering and drill sergeant-like dad on good terms with the audience. He’s egotistical, pushy, and self-centered, qualities that would make any character objectionable. But when Smith cracks that smile or makes that joke, he’s hard to dislike. It also helps that we know the outcome of the method to his madness. For Smith, getting into character meant gaining weight, a grizzled beard, and those empowering booty shorts. He also walks hunched over, the effects of years of psychical abuse that Richard explains started when his father abandoned him as a child. There were several emotional moments in “King Richard” that got to me, making me reach for that tissue, thanks to Smith’s commanding performance.

Following in the footsteps of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the trend being, skip the dark material to keep the story upbeat — “King Richard” is the feel-good film of the year and perfect for a family outing to the cinema. Plus, parents will enjoy pointing out to their kids how well-mannered and disciplined Venus and Serena are portrayed. “Now see how far you can go in life if you just….”

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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