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Movie review: 'Wimbledon'

2 stars (out of 4)

In "Wimbledon," Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst play professional tennis players who fall in love at Britain's Wimbledon tennis tournament--but are foiled, at least temporarily, by tyrannical parents, mean opponents and bad line calls.

This slickly efficient but defiantly cliched movie has as its main characters aging Brit Peter Colt (Bettany) and fresh young American Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst). He's mired in a long losing streak and has already announced his retirement when he starts an improbable run toward the championship by beating younger, stronger players through a combination of luck, accidents, grit and amazing CGI effects.

She's brash and unconcerned about appearing nude in front of strangers (i.e., Peter) in her hotel room, despite being subject to an over-protective dad, Dennis (Sam Neill), who thinks that sex and tennis don't mix and true love is even worse.

All of this transparent hokum leads up to an exciting but thoroughly schmaltzy Wimbledon final, archly announced on TV by the broadcast team of ex-players John McEnroe and Chris Evert, who play themselves, but not too convincingly. As the crowd applauds and necks swivel, Peter, with an aching back and sheer gumption, battles for the title against the incredibly nasty young Yank star Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), who wanted Lizzie for himself and has already caused a scene in public and been roundly smacked by Peter.

Will Peter win both Wimbledon and the heart of Lizzie? Will the sun rise over Piccadilly? Suffice it to say that writers Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin write as shamelessly as they can--and that director Richard Loncraine does nothing much to drag us all back down to Earth.

It's a harmless enough movie, I suppose, and quite a good-looking one; Bettany and Dunst are an attractive enough couple, even if Lizzie has been written as a selfish little snip and he as a whining man-child.

But "Wimbledon" also struck me as almost as transparent a piece of dotty wish fulfillment as "The Mighty Ducks." Bettany has to narrate the action, explaining his inner anguish, and it's a waste of a fine actor; he and Dunst are reduced by the silly plot mechanics to the roles of an improbable golden couple, racing around and hiding like teenagers from the fearsome Neill. In point of fact, the entire movie might make more emotional sense if it were about a junior high tennis tournament in Modesto.

As a director, Loncraine usually handles much more substantial and wittier stuff than this, including those two fine, weird Dennis Potter screenplays, "Brimstone and Treacle" and "Blade on the Feather."

Despite the presence of tennis star Pat Cash as technical advisor--and despite such a clever use of CGI technology and computerized tennis balls that the onscreen players appear to be executing incredible volleys and stupendous saves--"Wimbledon" is about as convincing a sports drama as "S.W.A.T." or "Starsky and Hutch" are believable police films.

Why do modern sports movies, which can now replicate athletic action with more seeming fidelity and excitement than ever before, persist in telling such yowlingly childish stories? Even a bookie wouldn't wonder about the outcome in a show like "Wimbledon"--where love means nothing and so do tennis and real life.

"Wimbledon"

Directed by Richard Loncraine; written by Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin; photographed by Darius Khondji; edited by Humphrey Dixon; production designed by Brian Morris; music by Edward Shearmur; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Liza Chasin and Mary Richards. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexuality and partial nudity).

Lizzie Bradbury - Kirsten Dunst
Peter Colt - Paul Bettany
Dennis Bradbury - Sam Neill
Ron Roth - Jon Favreau
Edward Colt - Bernard Hill
Augusta Colt - Eleanor Bron
Jake Hammond - Austin Nichols
Himself - John McEnroe
Herself - Chris Evert

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