Scattershot `Wimbledon' doesn't make the cut


September 17, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

They meet cute, play tennis cute and certainly look cute. Trouble is, that's as involving as this movie gets.

Wimbledon is an attempt to play out Bull Durham on grass, to do for tennis what that great 1988 film did for baseball: make it seem hip, dramatic and, most of all, sexy. But it has nowhere near the edge of the earlier film, which was as smart as it was erotic; sadly, Wimbledon is neither.

Paul Bettany is Peter Colt, a 32-year-old has-been on the pro tennis scene about to play in what he resignedly decides will be his final tournament. Not coincidentally, Colt is British and the tournament is Wimbledon; best to go out in front of the home crowd.

But all this was decided before Cole meets Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), a shooting star on the women's circuit who's pretty, brash and American. Lizzie makes Peter's heart go all a-flutter - not surprising, since his first glimpse of her is nude through a shower curtain - and suddenly he's got instant inspiration, which translates to some pretty intense, champion-level tennis.

Problem is, what's motivation for Peter is distraction for Lizzie, whose over-protective father (Sam Neill) sees the runner-up writing on the wall and does his gatekeeper best to keep the young lovers apart. With predictable success.

Possibly Wimbledon's greatest failing is its determination to be everything at once: sports movie, romance, psychological study, light comedy. Sometimes it gets things right - the film is most perceptive when Peter, in voiceover narration, gives words to his thoughts during a match - but too often, it depends on formula and trick photography to further its story.

The special effects come when the movie strains to make the actors appear to be genuine tennis players. The tennis balls are all CGI creations, while the actors' movements are speeded up to make them appear more athletic. But neither Bettany nor Dunst looks like a tennis player. Bettany is neither rangy nor muscular enough, while Dunst is forever destined to appear more the cheerleader than the one being cheered for.

To be fair, both actors try hard, and when the action moves off court, they slide into their parts well enough; Dunst is especially good as the sassy American (though the script by Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin barely develops her character at all), while Bettany acts properly conflicted. Although he's playing the best tennis of his life at what could prove the most inopportune time, he's unable to consciously ratchet-down his performance.

Jon Favreau has some funny scenes as the sports agent who represents both players, as well as seemingly everyone else on the circuit, and director Richard Loncraine (TV's The Gathering Storm) handles things with a professionalism that keeps things palatable. Still, too little believable action and too much sports-movie cliche (can we forever retire the breathlessly trite play-by-play that broadcasters are always reduced to in the movies?) make Wimbledon the cinematic equivalent of a careless foot fault.


Starring Kirsten Dunst, Paul Bettany

Directed by Richard Loncraine

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13 (language, sexuality and partial nudity)

Time 96 minutes

Sun Score **

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