- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Love means nothing in tennis. In “Wimbledon,” neither do romantic chemistry, tension or authenticity.

The new romance set on the fabled tennis grounds abandons a pair of eye-pleasing leads on a court full of stale sports observations. Even John McEnroe’s contributions as a play-by-play announcer border on the banal.

And yes, we’re most definitely serious.

Paul Bettany (“A Beautiful Mind”) stars as Peter Colt, a journeyman tennis pro facing his last run at Wimbledon. He never turned out to be much of a player, and he’s dreading the tournament’s end, when he’ll retire to life as a swanky club’s tennis jock.

Along comes American tennis sensation Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), and suddenly there’s extra zing in Peter’s backhand. The two flirt and fool around in the blink of a movie frame, but Lizzie’s controlling papa (Sam Neill) threatens to end the romance before it begins. His little girl doesn’t need any distractions as she faces her first major event.

Filmed last year at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, “Wimbledon” sure looks like an ace. Director Richard Loncraine frames his romance with the court’s natural beauty foremost in mind, but nothing can camouflage the messy script.

Whatever insights could be gleaned from an insider peek at the hallowed tournament are muffled by over-narration and generic dialogue. Miss Dunst’s Lizzie actually tells Peter at one point that “love means nothing in tennis,” and it’s supposed to be part of a bittersweet exchange.

Miss Dunst, who is blossoming into a lovely actress, is unconvincing as a top-tier athlete. And the idea of making Lizzie a petulant ugly American on the courts just disappears in a cloud of chalk dust as the movie wears on.

The romance would have been far more compelling had Peter tried to woo such an unruly player. Instead, our Lizzie quickly lapses into a formula romantic-comedy foil who could be inserted into any Hollywood film.

Today’s audiences are spoiled. They make large demands of their stars. They want to see the actors do all their own stunts and, in sports films, hit those home runs or make that amazing return. Here, the match sequences are a blend of too-tight shots and volleys that appear tweaked by computer. The game’s natural poetry is all but lost.

Mr. Bettany’s tennis skills seem a bit more polished than his screen partner’s, though Mr. Loncraine’s staging of the key matches drains much of the tension.

And is it too much to ask for Mr. Bettany’s character to perspire during a five-set match? The Brit’s hair stays impossibly crisp throughout the movie, as if the ball boy worked on his ‘do between games.

A crackerjack sports movie makes viewers want to rush out to the court, sandlot or gridiron. The liveliest inspiration “Wimbledon” provides to pick up a racquet is the hope to see a Bettany or Dunst look-alike on a nearby court.

**

WHAT: “Wimbledon”

RATING: PG-13 (adult language, sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Loncraine. Written by Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: www.wimbledonmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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