Directed by Richard Loncraine
Wimbledon struck me as a light-handed romantic comedy set in the milieu of professional tennis rather than a sports movie with a romantic angle. While there were several intense tennis sequences, they didn’t overwhelm the story involving the ups and downs of two lovers who just happen to be in the middle of a major tournament. Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) is an insecure, 32-year-old British pro who never really made it big and is ready to hang it up after this last tournament – in which he barely qualified as a wild card. Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) is a brash American top-seed with a penchant for extra workouts with male players the night before a big match. Predictably, they fall in love -- which helps his game, along with his overall outlook on life -- but causes her problems since love was more than she planned for. The idea of the woman as the philanderer is hardly man-bites-dog but this film pulls it off with subtlety and understated humor – rare in romantic comedies these days.
Most of the humor comes from clever dialog rather than the typical waiters dropping trays, fart jokes, and humiliation humor. The movie employs many clichés but at least they’re not the stupid clichés that form the building blocks of most American romantic comedies. On the American vs. British comedy subject: I’m not sure how to classify Wimbledon since it most of the humor comes from witty dialog (British) but I didn’t find many cultural references that would puzzle and alienate American viewers. What British director Richard Loncraine (1995’s Richard III) achieved: he adapted a British-style comedy to appeal to – or at least not confuse – the Americans.
A fine supporting cast, particularly developing his and her families, helped to define who these lovers are. Peter’s parents (Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron) are nice and loveable as individuals but estranged as a couple for some reason – we get to see their relationship improve, but not unrealistically so – very well done by the filmmakers. Peter’s brother (James McAvoy) is the closest thing to a slapstick character – he bets against Peter with the corner broker -- and comes across as a spoiled but likable slacker, English-style. Lizzie’s father (Sam Neill) is a hard-driving, over-protective tennis dad – it’s easy to see where her rebellious behavior (the pre-match liaisons) came from. My favorite supporting character: Jon Favreau as the sports agent – such a natural comedian – he steals every scene he’s in. It’s too bad they didn’t give him more screen time.
Although Peter and Lizzie are definitely the two main characters, the excellent supporting cast of Wimbledon not only fills out the story with their own sub-plots but adds a family dimension that creates a connection to something other than the game.
In spite of many clichés typical of both sports movies and romantic dramas – not many romantic-comedy clichés thank goodness – this film made me care about the characters as it gave me a few laughs. Of course, as a sports movie, there had to be a big climatic match at the end and, of course, the opponent had to be nasty and evil. And, as a romance, we had to have this conflict between Peter and Lizzie’s father. But how the filmmakers handled it –without giving anything away – showed a light touch – good storytelling. They resisted the urge to pound you over the head with melodrama.
Wimbledon could have gone the way of any number of typical romantic comedies or – I don’t know which is worse – typical sports movies. They didn’t over-do the tennis angle – a good thing from my point of view since I’m not much of a fan. The tennis scenes are well shot -- to the point where I concluded that Paul Bettany must be a pretty decent player – there were numerous shots that showed him (unmistakably him, not a double) running and hitting the ball very well. The real strength of the film is as a romantic comedy with a strong cast – principal and supporting – that told a believable story with humor. Not the spill-beer-all-over-her one minute and toilet humor the next minute, but well-written funny dialog that suits the characters and the story.
Photographs are copyright Universal Pictures.
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