Wimbledon (12A)

Game, sex and match
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The Independent Culture

It is a truth universally acknowledged - or in this case, acknowledged by Universal - that a single American woman in possession of a good career must be in want of a charming, easily embarrassed upper-middle-class English husband. And vice versa. Hence Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and now Wimbledon - which is, to put it plainly, Notting Hill plus motivational psychology.

It is a truth universally acknowledged - or in this case, acknowledged by Universal - that a single American woman in possession of a good career must be in want of a charming, easily embarrassed upper-middle-class English husband. And vice versa. Hence Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and now Wimbledon - which is, to put it plainly, Notting Hill plus motivational psychology.

The charming Englishman in this case is Peter Colt (Paul Bettany), a once-promising British tennis player, now ranked 119th in the world and falling. He is starting to get old - the other players seem younger, the balls move faster - and he reluctantly concludes that he might as well take up the offer of a job as director of tennis at a swanky club.

But before he finally hangs up his racket, he has a wild card for the men's singles at Wimbledon, and the prospect of going out in reasonable style by putting up a decent show in the opening rounds. Then - would you credit it? - he stumbles into acquaintance with Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), a brash young American star.

Next thing you know, they're in bed together; and when she turns up at his first-round match the following day, his game picks up no end. Before you know it, her pushy tennis-dad is warning him off, they're discovering that this means so much more to both of them than just another casual fling, and he's dispatching Grand Slam champions right and left.

I must be starting to get old, too: there was a time when I'd have volleyed a piece of derivative, audience-pleasing tosh like this into the backhand corner of the court without turning a hair.

Where do we start? The blatancy of the connection between sexual success and sporting achievement is enough to put you off. It is advertised as a comedy, but it didn't make me laugh - Jon Favreau's neat turn as Bettany's grasping but soft-hearted agent came closest. Much of the dialogue is almost unbearable, especially the pep talks Dunst delivers to Bettany at regular intervals.

And don't start me on the criminal waste of distinguished British actors - Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron play Bettany's semi-estranged parents, granted a new lease of sexual life by their son's sudden success.

It isn't as if the plot tries even half-heartedly to be plausible: are we really supposed to swallow the proposition that a tennis-playing beauty and a British hopeful can conduct a romance publicly in the middle of Wimbledon fortnight without attracting the attention of fans or paparazzi?

Dunst and Bettany aren't hugely convincing as tennis players, either, despite all the help they get from a battery of special effects - camera crash-zooming on Bettany's eyeballs at moments of crisis, film speeding up and slowing down, CGI tennis balls flashing around the court. They just don't have the muscle tone.

Nor can Bettany do romantic comedy - at least, not in the Grant sense, either Cary or Hugh. Even when he is dry as a bone he has a sweaty quality, an air of being on the edge of breaking down into violence or tears. The sense of desperation - innate in all British tennis players - is believable, and stops the film ever feeling too sugary.

The film's other big advantage is, of course, Dunst, always sunny and human. Played by almost anybody else, Lizzie would feel underdrawn, a cobbling together of clichés about Americans and tennis and sex and self-confidence. It would be impressive if Dunst made you feel like you were watching a properly thought-out character, but she even makes you feel like you're watching a person.

The other appealing aspect of the film is the play it makes with the national inferiority complex, the supposed fear or loathing of success. "Everybody loves a winner," says Bettany's German best friend after one of his matches. "Everyone but the British," Bettany ripostes.

In the final - is it giving too much away to say that Bettany makes it through to the final? - a bastard American, the same one Bettany hit in the jaw earlier, serves a ball straight at the friendly and respectful ball boy who has been at all Bettany's matches so far. Bettany's face takes on a grim resolve: "You're going down," he says, before being hit all round the court by his opponent's superior skills.

I suspect a lot of British audiences will, like me, watch this exhibition of incompetence and deluded self-belief with a sense of wary but flattered self-recognition - we do self-deprecation so much better than everybody else. How this will play outside this country is another matter. The film's subtext seems to be that all the British need to conquer the world is an American to put some backbone into them; and right now, I'm not sure how much of an international market there is for that sort of thing.

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