Eric D. Snider

Wimbledon

I get the feeling someone thought of the clever line, "Love means nothing in tennis" and wrote a movie around it. "Wimbledon" combines the clichés of romantic comedies with the clichés of sports movies and comes up with a pleasant, funny, utterly predictable film that won't hurt you to watch but won't hurt you to miss, either.

Kirsten Dunst gets top billing, but she is really the second lead. I hope she gives her agent a nice Christmas bonus this year. The actual star is Paul Bettany, the lanky, likable British actor who has distinguished himself with interesting performances in movies such as "A Knight's Tale" and "Master and Commander." Here he plays Peter Colt, once the No. 15 tennis player in the world and now No. 119 -- which is to say, he was never the best, and now what little glory he had has faded.

He gets only passing support at home. His parents (Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron, both amusingly daft) are busy not liking each other, and his younger brother Carl (James McAvoy) always wagers against him at the betting parlor.

Under these circumstances he goes to Wimbledon on a wild card slot. He has determined that regardless of the outcome -- and he's pretty sure he'll be bumped in the first round -- he'll quit professional tennis when it's over. He already has a job lined up as an instructor at a snooty resort where old women will flirt with him all day. All that remains now is to get on with Wimbledon so he can get on with his life.

Before the tournament begins, Peter meets Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst), the much-discussed young American tennis star. Since this is a romantic comedy, the way he meets her is by walking into her hotel room by mistake and finding her in the shower. (Whether I've actually seen this device before or not, it certainly FEELS like I have.) They talk. They flirt. They go out. They sleep together. They begin to fall in love.

The screenplay, by Adam Brooks ("French Kiss"), Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, cannot decide on a conflict, so it gives us several minor, underdeveloped ones. There is Lizzie's overprotective father (Sam Neill), who fears any romantic entanglements will distract her from her game. There is Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), the cocky American player who is also wooing Lizzie and who, you just know it, is bound to appear against Peter in a match before Wimbledon is over. And there are tennis' lasting superstitions, some dictating that a player not change his routine AT ALL when he's on a winning streak, and some dictating a player not have sex before a match, even if having sex WAS his routine.

Eventually, there is a pronouncement of love (carried out over live TV, naturally) and a heart-pounding final match whose outcome seems predestined but to which 20 minutes of screen time are devoted nonetheless. It is, as I said, every bit a romantic comedy and a sports movie, and it adds nothing to either genre.

That said, Bettany is an exceedingly strong leading man, flustered and vulnerable and prone to commenting under his breath on his surroundings. He needs to be given more starring roles; he has an effortless, Everyman charm that reminds me of Hugh Grant (who was once considered for this role).

I used to be big on Kirsten Dunst, but now ... meh. I'm over her. She seems so whiny. Or maybe it's just this film.

Some of the tennis scenes are extremely well-shot, director Richard Loncraine having decided, apparently, that even tennis can be made to look like an X-treme sport. Hey, whatever fun you can find, go for it. This is certainly not an original film, but it's a decent one.

Grade: B-

Rated PG-13, a fair amount of swearing, one F-word, brief partial nudity

1 hr., 40 min.

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