Judge Diane Wild felt "love" for this film, and if you're a tennis fan you know just what that means.
She's the golden girl. He's the long shot. It's a match made in Wimbledon.
"Love means nothing in tennis. Zero. It only means you lose." So says Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man 2), the female lead of the romantic comedy Wimbledon. My suspicions are raised: can this movie, based around a pun, turn into that rare breed, the good romantic comedy? Or will the filmmakers serve up another romance without heart, another comedy without a funny bone?
Facts of the Case
Peter Colt (Paul Bettany, A Knight's Tale) is a 31-year-old English tennis player long past his prime. He has just accepted a job teaching rich middle-aged women whose lust surpasses their talents. But first, he wants to make his exit from pro tennis with grace. Once seeded 11th in the world (as he must constantly remind people, since it was so long ago), but known for choking at crucial moments, he is now ranked 119th and entering his final Wimbledon tournament as a wild card entry.
His own brother bets against him, but to everyone's surprise—including Peter's—he begins to win. He also meets up-and-coming American star Lizzie Bradbury, a John McEnroe-ette in training. She's as shrill as he is affable, but since we're watching a movie that boasts "From the makers of Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill," we know they're destined to fall in love.
Problem is, while Peter's game improves when she's admiring him from the stands, hers deteriorates with the distraction of the relationship. Her controlling but well-meaning father (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) tries to separate the pair so his daughter can focus on her goal: to win her first Wimbledon.
Keep in mind that the production company (Working Title) of the above-mentioned popular romantic comedies brings us Wimbledon, not the creative teams behind them. In the commentary, director Richard Loncraine (My House in Umbria) talks about his last-minute desire to have an opening title sequence that would "clear the palate" and erase expectations of a Richard Curtis-like movie after the Working Title logo appears onscreen. The resulting titles are nifty, but this is in fact a romantic comedy; my expectation of seeing romance and comedy remained. Silly me.
Wimbledon should work better than it does. The filmmakers were given incredible access to the 2003 tournament, so shots of the actors playing tennis were actually filmed before crowds there to see real matches with the likes of Roger Federer and the Williams sisters. It's an intriguing backdrop for a romantic comedy, but it's also a sticking point with the developing romance. Wimbledon takes place over two weeks. It's too short a time to make their angst over being separated feel real, too short to believe they've really fallen in love. Romantic comedies often ask us to accept instant love after a meet-cute scene. Here, Wimbledon's real-life timeline intrudes, and the romance isn't given room to grow.
Bettany plays the affable Peter with endearing charm. He's an actor with all the makings of a great romantic lead, but this character isn't fleshed out enough to carry a romantic comedy. We see events though Peter's point of view, but the crucial question of what he sees in the spoiled princess Lizzie is never answered to my satisfaction.
Dunst gets comparatively little screen time, and doesn't make the most of what she is given. She's oddly flat here, both in performance and tone of voice. Bettany and Dunst are visually a golden couple, but there is no chemistry between them. Added to that is the 10 year age gap, which isn't unusual in movies and not even exceptional in real life, but she looks and acts younger than her years. I can't quite accept her as a romantic lead—unless it's with a comic book hero, I suppose.
I know there's a reality where a 31-year-old is over the hill in sports, and where a grown woman would be controlled by her father, but it doesn't translate well here. Hearing fresh-faced Bettany called "grandpa" just doesn't ring true, and we don't see Lizzie's viewpoint often enough to sympathize with her dilemma, choosing between Daddy and Peter.
So much for the romance, but what about the comedy? Unfortunately, the witticisms are simply not funny—except for a couple I saw a few dozen times in commercials for the original movie release. There are cruder moments which are, I almost hate to admit, the funniest bits. For example, after Peter sneaks into Lizzie's room, she says "Thank goodness you didn't get the wrong room." "I did," he replies. "Your dad's a quick shag." When spotting his next, very young, opponent, Peter comments: "Shouldn't he be off studying masturbation somewhere?" But to get a PG-13 rating, the film doesn't run with its comedic strength.
The supporting characters don't jump off the screen either. Peter's family is featured prominently, but they are mostly forgettable scenes. Jon Favreau (Swingers) shows up as a slimy agent, but neither he nor Sam Neill make much impression. These are potentially scene-stealing actors, but when the scenes are so blandly written, there's nothing worth stealing. John McEnroe and Chris Evert play themselves as commentators, and get some of the best lines (about Peter: "That wanker's the luckiest man in England").
The equal opportunity given to Peter's tennis games is a mistake, since it takes away time to allow the Peter-Lizzie relationship to develop, and the matches themselves aren't full of suspense. Whether there's any doubt about the outcome in viewers' minds or not, Peter is an aging, long-shot contender who only wants to play his final tournament with grace. Without a burning desire to win at all costs, he is set up as a character to cheer on, but whose fate is predetermined, win or lose.
In the commentary, Bettany is disarmingly honest about lines he doesn't feel worked, and even Loncraine wonders about scenes that he thinks are flawed. For the most part, he gives too much credit to the script's supposed light touch, but it's refreshing that even the participants aren't trying to convince us this movie is a masterpiece.
Loncraine seems overly proud of creating a "new" genre, the romantic comedy/sports movie, saying in the commentary that it would be alone on the video store shelves under that category. Hello? Every heard of a little movie called Jerry Maguire, which did it so much better than this one?
To give him his due, the action shots are pretty good, and there's a series of sweet moments between Peter and the ballboy who looks up to him, but the human story is sacrificed to the visual effects of trying to make actors look like professional tennis players.
The numerous extras are heavily focused on showing us how the scenes were shot (here's the two-second answer: with a CGI ball) and they give us a glimpse of what it was like to film at Wimbledon. Most of the featurettes are indistinguishable from each other, containing interviews with cast members, actual tennis players, and the director talking about the filmmaking experience. They're interesting, but there is too much repetition among the various extras. The commentary is more worthwhile, with both participants keeping up an easy, informative conversation.
Wimbledon takes advantage of its Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks more than the average romantic comedy, with lots of surround action during the game sequences. Crowd noise, play-related grunts and thumps, and Peter's thoughts (expressed in voiceover narration) fill the room. The picture is excellent but not perfect, with some edge enhancement, compression artifacts, and aliasing, but nothing too distracting. The colors are full and bright, and contrast is great.
Wimbledon is underwritten, it never has fun with its setting, and never develops the relationships between its characters. Without that sense of fun and humanity, it's not even an appealing rental.
Wimbledon is guilty of a most heinous crime: blandness.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Paul Bettany and Richard Loncraine
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