3.5 Stars
Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes
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At this point in history, Great Britain’s most notable contribution to popular culture would appear to be the quirky yet uplifting romantic comedy. A network of writers, actors and directors has built an industry out of them, rolling out Four Weddings and a Funeral a decade ago and following that with Notting Hill, About A Boy, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually. All these films adhered to a successful formula the ingredients of which, until now, have included unlikely love connections, snappier than average dialogue, supporting ensembles of colorful, slightly offbeat characters and Hugh Grant.

Wimbledon is the first in this product line to feature another twinkly-eyed Englishman in Grant’s place and the result is, to some extant, analogous to the substitution of NutraSweet for sugar in Diet Coke. Paul Bettany is cheeky, sweet and charming however the end result, while satisfying, is a picture one might quite fairly describe as Notting Hill Lite.

The actor plays an affable tennis pro whose ranking has slipped from an all time high of 11th to 119th in the world. Though just past thirty, he’s convinced his best days on the court are behind him and intends to hang up his racquet in terms of competitive play following his wild card outing at Wimbledon, a contest he has so little chance of winning his own brother bets against him.

Not that anyone in the family needs the money. Bettany’s character drives a vintage Porche, keeps a London flat and is close to his extremely wealthy, extremely eccentric parents who reside in a country estate worthy of rock royalty. At least when his father (Bernard Hill) isn’t residing in its backyard treehouse after a spat with Bettany’s mother (Eleanor Bron).

Kirsten Dunst assumes a role recurrent in these movies, that of the American who wins the heart of the Brit. In contrast to Bettany, Dunst is a brash young player whose star is decidedly on the rise. She’s also self assured and sexually forward to a degree rarely seen in pictures outside the Fatal Attraction-style crazy stranger mold. When their paths cross, apparently by accident, the American suggests forming a coalition. Enthusiastic cooperation on the part of the English ensues as usual.

The template for Wimbledon is taken from Barry Levinson’s The Natural. As in the 1984 classic, a has-been battles his way back thanks to the twin blessings of athletic prowess and romantic love. The similarity between the two stories is considerable, down to details like the special relationship Bettany shares with his ball boy. It’s the mirror image of the one Redford enjoyed with his bat boy. The final act and coda of the two films strike almost exactly the same note.

Of course, the tale is updated to our media happy times and relocated to the land of Bridget Jones. The press quickly makes front page news of the photogenic pair and Bettany’s dark horse rise through the ranks captures the imagination of the entire country which, while host to the world’s greatest tennis tournament, in reality hasn’t seen one of its own win it in more than sixty years.

There isn’t a moment in the movie when it’s not perfectly clear where everything from the main story line to the most marginal subplot is headed. At the same time, there isn’t a moment when that makes any of it the slightest bit less entertaining. Bettany’s such a fine, resourceful actor he handily shapes a stick figure into an endearing character and gives the viewer more than ample reason to care whether he will wind up with the trophy and the girl. Dunst has the smaller part of the two but adds another smartly crafted characterization to her resume.

You aren’t likely to see a film with more warmth and good humor anytime soon or one that does more to give feel good filmmaking a good name. I always leave these movies with the sense they were made by the last surviving non-cynics in the business. The milk of human kindness should be on the concession menu next to the Pepsi and popcorn more often.

While the script is a rewrite or three from the standard set by Four Weddings and About A Boy, the movie does feature some of the most thrilling and artfully choreographed contests ever put on film. Director Richard Loncraine has reset the bar here though not exactly in the way the majority of reviewers have reported. Fun fact of the week: While it’s true that both stars trained for months and played their own games and that the matches are brilliantly edited, here’s the thing. Sure, that’s really Bettany and Dunst racing, diving and swinging away-it’s the tennis balls that aren’t real! CGIs were used to make sure they hit their mark. The actors just had to look good pretending to hit them.

How winning a picture is Wimbledon? Even if you go in knowing this, you probably won’t notice. You’ll be way too busy being charmed, amused and moved to keep your eye on the ball.

Posted on September 20, 2004 in Reviews by

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