Poor England has, first, had to suffer the indignity of having no local win in its tennis championship in 68 years, with Tim Henman coming close to a final on a few recent occasions, and, now, it has to survive a movie that beats the country's cruel reality into a cheesy romantic pastry.
"Wimbledon" attempts to give the millions of Brits who camp out in front of their television sets and outside of Centre Court what they've been waiting half a century for: a winner. The movie, however, ought to be written off as a loss. Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) is ranked 119 in the world. His career's been on the skids since it peaked in 1996, when he was number 11. But suddenly, at his 13th, and possibly final, Wimbledon, he hits the lawns and starts climbing through the tournament's main draw, slaying the current French Open champ and defeating his good German friend along the way.
The reason for this resurgent play is not excessive training, smart coaching, or even a trip to the BALCO labs. It's sex with Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), the cute, tantrum-tossing American upstart who rights his mojo. This is a grave premise for a sports movie, and a terrible excuse for a romance. But "Wimbledon" is the sort of movie that concocts a room-key mix-up to allow its hero to walk in on its heroine as she showers. From this introductory scene, the picture never looks back, coasting from one inspirational rendezvous to the next.
This is Lizzie's first Wimbledon. So her father and coach (Sam Neill) wants her head in the game. To hear dad tell it, Lizzie is the little red Corvette of the women's tour. Lots of hookups are part of her routine, and if her bed is empty, her entire game could fall apart. Her quickies seem to suit Dad fine. What he can't abide is his daughter's slowing down for love. This is our dramatic tension: Will Lizzie continue to sleep with Peter to help them both triumph or, fearing commitment and thus defeat, will she break it off?
"Wimbledon" is refried "Notting Hill" with a Teen People glaze. The latter movie also gave us an American star cheering up some tired British guy. "Wimbledon" is blander and far less worth rooting for. The director is Richard Loncraine, who tends to specialize in biggish, importantish affairs like HBO's "The Gathering Storm" and his ingenious WWII adaptation of "Richard III" from 1995. He brings a lot of experience to the table but, with the help of the movie's writers, not a lot of realism. On the eve of his semifinals match, Peter doesn't sit around his hotel room, sick with worry, flipping through the channels or going over his game plan to win what is surely the match of his life. He climbs up the side of Lizzie's secret hideaway and through her bedroom window. This is how anyone would behave the night before a huge test of endurance, precision, and skill: like John Cusack in "Say Anything."
But then, the movie doesn't care a whit about tennis. And the actual tennis playing looks recreational at best. There is slapping, slipping, sliding, and the needless, hard-to-explain diving of the sort that you might recognize from college intramurals or phys ed. Bettany's tactic is to stick out his racquet and lunge at the ball, as though the object of the game is to catch it and cook it up for dinner. Dunst, as you might expect, gives the playing her typical all. Her game face, usually red and tight, is often betrayed by her gangly stances.
But for one to drone on about lousy, lumpy tennis is to miss the point of "Wimbledon," which is about lousy, lumpy love. The movie sees Peter's success as an excuse to bring his folks together, which in a better, less self-centered movie would be fine. A Brit in the Wimbledon final might produce a country of tennis hooligans. We get family treacle instead. How else will Peter's bickering parents know they love each other unless they watch him win from the family box? This power of love is native to no particular sport. You could make the same romantic comedy about rodeos -- and probably have less manure.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Written by: Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin
Starring: Paul Bettany, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Neill, Jon Favreau
At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (language, sexuality, nudity)