Winning at Love 

Tennis romance Wimbledon has its charms, but they're completely offset whenever the actors step onto the court

Tennis romance Wimbledon has its charms, but they're completely offset whenever the actors step onto the court

During an interview on Inside the Actors Studio, Kevin Costner said that only actors who are good athletes should star in sports films, and at no point in his star turn in Bull Durham do you doubt that the man knows the heft of a baseball bat or the hitter's sloe-eyed stare before a pitch is delivered. Costner has played hardball, and his innate athletic grace grounded Bull Durham's lighthearted love story in the dirt and tobacco spit of our national pastime. It gave a movie rich in dialogue and idiosyncratic detail an added dimension of physical authenticity.

It's hard to say the same about Wimbledon, the new romantic comedy by the creators of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Starring Kirsten Dunst as rising tennis phenom Lizzie Bradbury, and Paul Bettany (who was fantastic in last year's Master and Commander) as aging vet Peter Colt, the movie is as formulaic as they come—not that there's anything wrong with that. Shakespeare was plenty formulaic in his comedies, and never once did he create a circumstantially challenged couple in Act I who weren't married by Act V. Comparatively, the obstacles Lizzie and Colt face (besides their age difference) are far less insurmountable than, say, Viola and Count Orsino's in Twelfth Night. Colt, a historic choker in big matches, playing in the last professional tournament of his not-so-illustrious career, meets Lizzie by chance. Their romance starts lightheartedly enough, but soon the newly inspired Colt finds himself felling top-ranked opponents while the love-lost Lizzie can't help but rebel against her overzealous coach/father (a sour Sam Neill) and lose focus on court. Will she learn to think for herself and play tennis for the right reasons? Will Colt overcome his self-doubt and become the first Brit to win Wimbledon in nearly a century? Will the two stop playing games and settle down, like Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf?

Questions far less earth-shattering than these have made for terrific romantic comedies, especially when the chemistry between the leads is right. Without a doubt, Dunst is as winning as ever, while Bettany is so chivalrously well-behaved you'd want your own tennis prodigy daughter to bring him home on a date. You can't help but root for them when they're off court.

It's when they get on the court that the movie becomes almost comically unbelievable. Forced to pass off an amateur like Bettany as a seasoned pro, the movie resorts to CGI to create the illusion of his matches, and the effects make the tennis look painfully unreal. Anyone who knows a thing about the Wimbledon tournament knows that the semifinals are played on Centre Court, not the show courts, and because we see Dunst swing the racket from the neck up for the whole film, it's hard to buy into all the fuss surrounding her character—not to mention all the downtime the two have between matches for the romance of a lifetime. Lapses like these diminish the players' formidable charms, so that in the end, whatever advantages Wimbledon has as a love story, it double faults when it comes to the sport.

—Adam Ross

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