Wimbledon starts with the premise of what could be an interesting sports movie, but wastes that potential on a by-the-numbers story that draws its many clichés from two separate genres that abound with them, the romantic comedy as well as the sports movie.
The story revolves around an aging journeyman British tennis pro Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) and his unlikely success at the fabled tennis championships at Wimbledon, mostly due to falling in love with Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), an up-and-coming American phenom.
Like any respectably half-baked romantic comedy, Wimbledon brings its lovers together through a contrived “meet-cute.” In this case, Peter is accidentally sent to Lizzie’s hotel room and walks in on her while she is taking a shower. The real problem is that, for a romantic comedy, the romance feels awfully superfluous, almost a distraction from the marginally more interesting story of an aging player rising above his limitations against much younger, stronger, faster athletes. The requisite obstacle to their romance, Lizzie’s ambitious, controlling father (Sam Neill) is an obligatory plot device more than a character. Equally wasted is Jon Favreau as Peter’s agent, who has little to do but be crass and annoying.
Peter’s family is far more interesting, especially his eccentric father (Bernard Hill), who is quite literally in the dog house with his disapproving wife (Eleanor Bron). Peter’s brother, Carl (James McAvoy), also provides some decent comic moments, betting on his brother to lose, something Peter has done reliably until now.
As the tournament get’s underway, Peter is hopelessly outmatched unless Lizzie is in the audience, in which case he handily spanks his opponents. As a sports movie cliché, this one has been turning up in the fossil record since before opposable thumbs. As Peter starts to win, all of Great Britain gets a hardon at the idea of a Brit winning Wimbledon again.
The tennis scenes are well staged and the actors are reasonably convincing as top level players, meaning that there aren’t any moments where the fakery looks obvious. The filmmakers used the high-tech expedient of digitally inserting the ball while the actors played air tennis, rather than using sixty takes for the actors to get the ball where the script said it had to go.
Unfortunately, the real life tennis stars Chris Evert and John McEnroe are less successful at playing themselves as the television commentators. Their stilted and labored delivery is so obviously scripted that it constantly undermines any sense of reality.
Fortunately, Bettany and Dunst are at least appealing and at ease in their roles, even though he is saddled with a part that was originally written for Hugh Grant and still seems tailored to him rather than the man who is actually on screen.
Would you be surprised to learn that the movie comes down to the final match with Peter against the top-ranked player in the world? Would it really be a spoiler to tell you who wins? This is one tennis movie that never dives for the ball or charges the net. Frankly, it just swats the ball against the garage door for a couple of hours.