Wimbledon is under way in sunny south London, and I thought it would be fun to have a tennis-themed movie. The pickings, though, are very thin: A big match is an important part of the plot of Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train, but we did that one only a couple of months ago. So here, from 2004, is the eponymous Wimbledon:
Wimbledon is from the same producers as Notting Hill. As commercial propositions go, it's probably a better bet than Ongar, Morden Via Bank or Hangar Lane Gyratory System. But, even so, by the time of its release, a certain pattern had begun to set in: diffident bumbling upper-middle-class Brit male woos and wins glamorous American gal way out of his league. This time round, it's a no-hoper English tennis player ranked No. 113 in the world who catches the eye of a ruthlessly driven Grand Slam shoo-in Yank hottie. She's on the way up, he's on the way down and hasn't much further to go.
Not a bad idea. As far as I know, it doesn't happen often in real life – Chris Evert's marriage to John Lloyd is the only thing that springs to mind. Miss Evert and John McEnroe turn up here as Wimbledon commentators, along with Britain's own John Barrett, and they do very well indeed – well, Evert and McEnroe do. But I wonder if Miss Evert – or Mrs Lloyd, as the Wimbledon umpires took to calling her – had that feeling of déjà vu all over again, watching a top-rank Yank fall for a British loser, though in this case producing a spectacular transformation in his game.
Just for a change, it's not Hugh Grant flopping his fringe all over Centre Court, but Paul Bettany as "veteran journeyman" Peter Colt, a likeably ordinary cove – tall and freckly and rangey in long shirts and long shorts whose vast expanse of whiteness is utterly bereft of any sponsorship deals. He's 32, feeling his age, and headed for a gig as tennis director at a club full of predatory matrons (Celia Imrie and co sleepwalking through the usual clichés). The hard-bitten bitch Peter gets a yen for is Lizzie Bradbury played by Kirsten Dunst. Yes, that Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man's girl next door. She gives it her best, er, shot – stomping over to the umpire and letting loose a McEnronious "You cannot be serious!" tantrum. But, this scene aside, in her placid understated slouchy bra-less style Miss Dunst is about as miscast as it's possible to be. Despite getting top billing in the movie over the wossname Brit, she is so not a Grand Slam bitch.
In fact, it occurred to me that a film in which amiable, unambitious Paul Bettany tried to nail a real career tennis player complete with demented stage dad and hatchet-faced lesbian coach would have been a lot funnier. Sam Neill is on hand as Lizzie's protective pa, but he too turns out to be a pussycat. In fact, Richard Loncraine has managed to make a film largely drained of dramatic tension. It's a tennis story where the tennis scenes have more drama than the actual story, and even then the outcome of the matches is never really in doubt. Love improves Peter Colt's game, and soon he's shagging his way to the quarter-finals and beyond. But the plot itself is barely there: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy never really loses girl; a perfunctory chug in straight sets, barely breaking a sweat. As for the rest of the action, Peter's parents (Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron) have a long-soured marriage and so dad has moved into the tree-house, but like most of the film's sub-plots it's painless and unthreatening and likely to be easily resolved and neatly wrapped up with a big satin bow within 90 minutes.
Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin have concocted a plot that hangs on the usual well-worn devices – in Peter and Lizzie's meet-cute, he checks in to the Dorchester, gets given the wrong room key and walks in on her in the shower. Is that really the best they can do? Not just the wrong key but the shower, too? How about a surprise twist in which he gets given the wrong key but it's Dominique Strauss Kahn in the shower? Later complications involve shinning up drainposts to second-floor bedrooms late at night while aggressive dogs roar below. The British content includes jokes about cucumber sandwiches, the American content includes jokes about pushy agents with cellphones.
On the whole, the British jokes fare better than the American. Though the master gardener himself, Richard Curtis, is nowhere in sight, all the features of Curtisland are lovingly tended: a romanticized London stripped of traffic and lit like Manhattan; a supporting cast of whimsical eccentrics; extensive use of "shag", "snog", "bollocks" and other Briticisms that American moviegoers have taken to heart, albeit imperfectly. (In his review of Wimbledon, my distinguished Chicago Sun-Times colleague, Roger Ebert, referred to the two principals "snoggling", which I rather liked: it sounds cosier than snogging.) When I first saw Wimbledon with an American audience, the thought occurred that its Britishness insulates the film: at one point, Peter and Lizzie walk in to his pad in Brighton to find that his younger brother and bird have taken up residence. "You might want to change the sheets," advises the kid bro as he flees. I'm not sure an audience would buy a line that vivid in an American romantic comedy, but the Brits seem to have successfully established their honk-if-you-bonk-ishness as the heir to Restoration comedy – crude but of good pedigree.
What saves the film is the low-key chemistry of Bettany and Dunst. They're likeable, and so the film is, too. It's undemanding and mildly engaging and has the good sense not to outstay its welcome. But I remember reading a couple of features on Working Title's problems getting the groundsmen at SW19 to cooperate with the movie, and I was struck by how unimpressed the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet chaps were by the picture. They have a point. There's only ever going to be one film about a British player reclaiming the Wimbledon title for the home team, and it should have been epic and romantic. Richard Loncraine and his team took the British-tennis approach to film-making, and they made a Tim Henman of a movie – close but not quite there.