Wimbledon (***)

Posted on September 6th, 2004 in Movie Reviews by mynagirl

I had pretty much written this movie off my possibility radar — I really like Paul Bettany (those of you who don’t recognize him might remember him from A Beautiful Mind or Master and Commander, playing second violin in both to Russell Crowe) but I can be hot and cold on Kirsten Dunst. Normally she’s okay, but the ads for this movie looked a little too sappy chick-flick, and it looked like her character was just a little too simpering for me.

However, in looking for a good post-dinner-and-coffee film with a girlfriend the other night (we even went jewelry shopping, so I guess we were looking for a chick flick), Wimbledon lined up correctly in the genre/theatre/timing category and there we were. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised! I was expecting at best a guilty pleasure and at worst a cringe-worthy moosh-fest with all the worst that Hollywood can serve up (so to speak) in a romantic comedy. Although I guess maybe it isn’t “Hollywood” crafting this movie, since it came from the team that put together Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, both clever and decidedly British comedies. I should’ve had more faith in that pedigree!

First of all, Wimbledon was much more of a Tennis Movie than I was expecting. Bettany’s character is Peter Colt, whom the announcers (great cameos by John McEnroe and Chris Evert Lloyd, by the way) constantly refer to as a ‘journeyman tennis player’: a relatively unknown Brit who’s been to Wimbledon 13 times, currently ranked 127th at 31 years of age, although in his younger days he was once ranked as high as 11th. He’s decided this is his last hurrah at tennis; he’s old (for a tennis player) and ready to retire to reluctantly become pro of a local club where he can be ogled by the rich old ladies in their tennis whites. His status in the tennis world is so marginalized that even his announcement of retirement is lost as the reporters turn to interview another younger, hotter player who enters the room during the press conference.

To make this in part a Tennis Movie, the filmmakers actually make excellent use of something I normally dislike — the athlete-psyching-himself-up-while-performing voice-over. Because they introduce it right from the beginning and it’s used consistently throughout, it actually adds to the movie rather than being a pesky fly buzzing at me during an otherwise enjoyable scene. And it makes the movie very much about the character of Colt and his tennis odyssey.

Well, not entirely. Enter Lizzy Bradbury, the young (but hopefully not too young, since Bettany’s character is 31) hot American tennis star. A mixup in hotel keys upon arrival at the Wimbledon’s primary hotel leads to Peter seeing Lizzy in her shower, and she seeks him out for flirting on the practice courts and private dates in her hotel suite after that. Cue standard pleas to keep their dates private from her overly-focused father, played by Sam Neill and said father inevitably finding out and menacing Peter to not distract his daughter from her game.

Peter and Lizzie’s little affairs, of course, end up rejuvenating Peter’s tennis game, and the journeyman player ends up being an unexpected hope for Britain in Wimbledon. Peter’s agent (a marvelously funny turn by Jon Favreau) begins speaking to him again after two years as Peter is hot property at the old age of 31. None of the major arcs in the story are exceptionally groundbreaking, but the minor details often go in unexpected directions and keep you interested: Peter Colt’s family is an interesting cast of characters, and a verbal conflict between Colt and a tennis rival doesn’t resolve in the stereotypical way you might expect.

All in all, it’s just a touch more than a lighthearted piece of fluff. It still has all the romantic comedy elements if that’s what you’re looking for, but the writing was just a shade above standard Hollywood schlock, and I really enjoyed it. I think even the guys might dig it. Jewelry shopping ahead of time not required.

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