starring Kirsten Dunst, Paul Bettany, Kyle Hyde, Robert Lindsay
screenplay by Adam Brooks and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin
directed by Richard Loncraine
by Walter Chaw If you go see Wimbledon, the umpteenth edition of Tired Romantic Comedy Theater, it's only because you have a checklist in your head and aren't content with a film that doesn't satisfy every contrivance. There's the meet-cute, the unlikely match, the handsome rival, the gay best friend, the falling-in-love montage, the plot conflict (spouse, parents), the break-up montage, the public apology, the triumphant reunion. Director Richard Loncraine's tepid foray into Richard Curtis territory is rife with the kind of familiar hallmarks that lull throngs of lonesome Mia Farrows to the warm embrace of The Purple Rose of Cairo--a brief respite from the used paperback bookstores that rely on a steady trade of romance novels the way that independent movie stores rely on porn. In fact, there's not that much of a difference between Wimbledon and porn: plot is predictable and secondary to the performers, who provide whatever interest there might be in the enterprise. Everything else is plug and play, so to speak.
Peter (Paul Bettany) is a yeoman tennis player taking his last run at Wimbledon when he falls for young hotshot Lizzie (Kirsten Dunst). A Yank with just the right amount of Yankee sauce to rejuvenate the flaccid prospects of tired old Bobbie Brit, Lizzie is micro-managed by her authoritarian dad/manager Sam Neill, making Peter and Lizzie's tryst front-page fodder in the Notting Hill tradition even though, let's face it, who cares what two tennis players do in private? The hubbub around the tourney is as strained as Loncraine's attempts to transform tennis into an exciting spectator sport, with lots of flash and camera tricks not doing much at all to obscure the clichés that comprise Wimbledon's core. And for as likable as Bettany and Dunst tend to be, the film and its frothy aspirations are so far beneath the both of them that even their combined charm is unable to salvage it.
That seems like a backhanded compliment, a way of saying that although the movie sucks, the stars are fun. What I'm really suggesting is that Wimbledon is a movie cynically aimed at a very particular demographic. It's content to do what business it does on the backs of these folks in the same way that muscle-bound action films aim at teenage boys and Hilary Duff abominations target the babysitting set. When a Dunst and a Bettany agree to a film like this, they're pandering to a base instinct to reject art of any lasting importance in the pursuit of a niche product that will expand their popularity in a specific way for a short period of time. It's Picasso painting a house, and conventionally at that, for a few bucks and the polite approval of its occupants--the precise equivalent of a sports star chasing the money instead of following his heart.
There's nothing wrong with Wimbledon, per se: it just has nothing in it that feeds the soul. It's MadLibs, romcom-style, sticking Dunst in for Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Lopez and Bettany in for Hugh Grant or Ben Affleck or whoever happens to be the flavour-of-the-moment. The film provides no challenge for the viewers, requires no participation, and squeezes out the yuks with piston-like dedication. It's no surprise if you feel pumped and worn-out after the flick, taken for granted and curiously drained of independent thought and impetus; and Wimbledon will be forgotten in the hours after you've seen it, will dissolve away into inconsequence with no trace of aftertaste or grit. If it won't kill you, it also has no nutritional value--though for some people (some of whom are the same people decrying the lack of imagination and verve in mainstream cinema), that's just the ticket. Originally published: September 17, 2004.