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A bit too cute for the court

September 17, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

About halfway through "Wimbledon," hot-headed American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) admits that her father was right all along: Her feelings for mild-mannered British long shot Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) are messing with her game. So she does what any lead in a movie about a Grand Slam tournament would do. She breaks it off with a tennis metaphor.

"Love means nothing in tennis!" she yells. "Zero! It only means you lose!"

You can't blame screenwriters Adam Brooks and Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin for milking it. No other game boasts such cute point-keeping terminology.

Eventually, of course, Lizzie will come around and let the love in. Its female lead may have been modeled on a young John McEnroe, but "Wimbledon," which was brought to us by the producers of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary," is the Bjorn Borg of romantic comedies: precise, good-looking, dependable and serviceable, if predictable. It never really heats up, which is too bad, because few sports are as sexy as tennis, with all its grunting, thudding, thwacking and swiveling heads. Even the classic invitation to play, "Tennis anyone?," at least the way they always say it in the movies, sounds like a proposition.

Like "Four Weddings" and "Notting Hill," the love story in "Wimbledon" is predicated on the enduring appeal of trans-Atlantic lovers trying to bridge the ever-amusing tomato-tomahto gap. Split along familiar passive/aggressive, shy/confident, verbal/physical, tea/gum lines, Lizzie and Peter nonetheless share one big interest. Which is why the romance feels so unconvincing. What with the late nights, the sneaking through windows and the weekend escapades, you'd think Lizzie and Peter were away at summer camp, not competing in a major event.

"Wimbledon" is set against the excitement of the 2003 Wimbledon Championships, and Darius Khondji's striking cinematography captures the game in a totally original way, but the heat doesn't rub off on the love story.

Having slipped to the 119th spot from his onetime world ranking of 11th, 30-something Peter is about to retire from professional tennis, having just accepted a position as tennis director at a posh country club. When he gets a wild-card shot at Wimbledon, he decides to give it a go. It's the first time, however, that he isn't given tickets for his bickering family.

His parents, Edward (Bernard Hill) and Augusta (Eleanor Bron), are separating in the most charming way imaginable -- Dad is moving up to the treehouse. (If Edward and Augusta were any more movie-British, they'd be upholstered in chintz.)

Meanwhile, Edward is inexplicably retracting his lifelong advice about tennis being a gentleman's game. "It's all bollocks," he says to Peter, "Everything I told you." Augusta, whose hobbies include gardening and undermining her kids' confidence, is mortally offended and refuses even to watch Peter play on TV. Only Peter's brother Carl (James McAvoy) upholds tradition by betting against him.

It's not until Peter accidentally walks in on rising star Lizzie in the shower of her suite (same hotel, wrong room), though, that his lucky streak gets officially underway. He wins a match against an opponent who happens to be his practice partner, Dieter (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), whose weaknesses, as Lizzie points out, he knows by heart. Next, he wins by default. Then another thanks to Lizzie's encouraging presence and pep talks. But it's his own internal pep monologue that helps him beat Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), a top-ranked American who used to date Lizzie.

For top-seeded tennis players, Dunst and Bettany look surprisingly like early '90s Calvin Klein models. Maria Sharapova could use Lizzie to hang wallpaper, she's so thin and pale. Bettany's scrawny physique is hardly more convincing, Boris Becker lashes notwithstanding. Lizzie seems much too gauzy, distracted and undisciplined to be convincing as a tennis champion. Except for a light jog during a weekend getaway, neither one of them trains.

There is an explanation for this, sort of: Peter discovers that some relaxing time with Lizzie improves his game, while Lizzie realizes the opposite. It's a cute romantic obstacle that might have been cuter if director Richard Loncraine had allowed Peter to be a little devilish.

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