If I were to tell you that Wimbledon is a sweet little movie, would you think I meant that as a compliment?
It's a romantic comedy set in the world of tennis, a sport where you have to sit there, silent and stone-faced through a long tense volley, waiting until the action ends before you can crack a vocal cord. Typical tennis joke: Some guy with his back turned gets beaned in the head by a stray serve. And let's not forget just how very romantic tennis can be: There's Andy Roddick and his pop-star jailbait du jour, or Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and their actress/ex-wives.
Directed by Richard Loncraine, who made the World War II version of Richard III, Wimbledon revolves around the incredible comeback of Peter Colt (Paul Bettany), an Englishman ranked 119th on the pro tennis circuit. He once got as high as 11, and he won a few trophies back in his day. But now he's 32, ancient in his sport, and about to settle into a job as a tennis pro at a country club for snobs and crones.
While taking one last run at his country's grandest tennis title, he begins a casual affair with Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), an American comer who's a favorite to win the women's tourney, and who lives her life brashly ("no embarrassment, no fear"). Truth is, she begins an affair with him, and it invigorates his game. But when her vigilant father (Sam Neill) questions her devotion to victory, she cuts Peter off -- and he braves the bark of a watchful English sheepdog to get her back.
Been there, done that, you should be thinking. So why do it again for a fleet 90 minutes, barely enough time for the movie's abstemious script to explore a sampler of subplots that desperately want to serve up an affable comic buffet? Peter has wealthy feuding parents (Dad's taken to a tree house behind their English country garden), a prodigal kid brother who uses Peter's rising fame to score a blond birdie, and a hotshot American agent (Jon Favreau) who starts taking his calls again. It's all boiled down, like gruel, to a sort of highlights reel of what you sense was once a longer movie.
Bettany (A Beautiful Mind) is blithely charming and rather adroit at the movie's modest wit, which goes more for smiles than laughs, or which only gets smiles. (Its "English" humor and colloquialisms are dully generic, possibly because two American TV writers wrote the screenplay). As for Dunst, I still can't decide whether her nasal voice and her tendency to slur her words is charmingly natural or just bad acting. Either way, she has a great big smile, and she seems totally sincere, if slightly leaden, in her romantic joie de vivre.