Modern romantic comedies can be a tricky formula that trip up the best of movie directors (see Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl”). And, unless your name is Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham”, “Tin Cup,” “White Men Can’t Jump”), then the underdog sports story turns out to be the most formula of formula films. Put these two old favorites together in one movie and if something doesn’t click, you’ve got the recipe for a potentially huge cliché overrun. “Wimbledon” doesn’t re-invent either genre by any means, but this pleasant trifle of a film manages a couple trick serves and rarely falls into the net.
In a movie like this, it is obvious where the story is going, so it is a must that the most important element of that story click. It is called chemistry, and from their first scene together, stars Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst have it. Bettany plays Peter Colt (a British thoroughbred name if there ever was one), a once-highly ranked tennis pro whose downward sloping career has led him to accepting a job at a pampered country club where he’ll be instructing flirty middle-aged wives how to improve their game. Once at Wimbledon to make his final appearance (ranked 119th in the tournament), he walks into the wrong hotel room and surprises young American tennis phenom Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst), who just happens to be taking a shower with the door open.
Instead of a slapstick scene of surprise and embarrassment, there is an immediate attraction. Lizzie teases Peter, who is charmed by her lack of pretension, and a playful courtship begins. Movies have come a long way since the Hays production code of the thirties and the next time we see the couple, they spend the night together. In a refreshing change of pace for most lightweight romantic films, Lizzie is the more aggressive of the pair. And she’s not portrayed as some kind of a slut. Rather (as Cheap Trick once sang), she knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. Being a favorite in the women’s tournament at Wimbledon doesn’t hurt either.
Lizzie is constantly dodging the press and her protective, watchdog father (Sam Neill), who knows what a romantic distraction could do to Lizzie’s game. Meanwhile, their liaison seems to be helping Peter, who unexpectedly finds himself on the road to the finals. We know all along what will happen to Peter, but delight in those moments just the same.
Screenwriters Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin have dared to write a woman character with an active sex drive. Lizzie’s past may be checkered with some quick relationships, but she is never painted as a harlot. We never get the feeling that she is less than genuine with Peter, and therefore escapes any easy classification as a predator. Peter is also nothing but sincere. He understands that his game is improving and, like most sports players, may be superstitious that if anything changes, his streak could end. But he is smitten, and he forgoes his regular tournament regimen to chase down Lizzie whenever he can.
In addition to focusing on the charming duo, director Richard Loncraine (“Richard III”) gets inside the head of the tennis player. This is very much a sports film, and the stress of a high stakes game is set against the backdrop of Wimbledon’s pageantry. Loncraine’s tennis scenes are quite convincing, and the Peter’s final match walks a careful line, managing to be visually inventive without being tasteless and over the top. We hear every thought inside Peter’s head, especially the ones that don’t have anything to do with tennis. Through severe close-ups and the dramatic manipulation of time, the director lets us experience how Peter sees the most important match of his career.
That said, “Wimbledon” is a mainstream romantic comedy, and ends just like a mainstream romantic comedy. That is to say, it breaks no new ground, but remains witty and unassuming, if a tad bit cheesier, towards the end. But you never feel disappointed by the movie, and that is something few directors have yet to master. Somehow, the British seem to have this formula down. If they keep turning out more cheery movies like this one, I’m not apt to complain.