My first reaction to this movie, before seeing it, was a dull ache, a cringe of sorts. I’d seen the poster — a glossy still lacquered with mischievous smiles and a mentioning of its ties to “Notting Hill” (both produced by Working Title Films) — and I envisioned the most odious of chick flicks. I saw the poster as a foreboding sign of a Julia Roberts-inspired cinematic archetype complete with a maudlin ending that would make me feel bad for not calling my mom in over two weeks. Was I wrong? Partially. Was it good? Keep reading and exercise your attention span.
In many ways, Richard Loncraine’s “Wimbledon” is a new breed of chick flick. However, I’m being unfair. In reality, the movie shouldn’t be pigeonholed so quickly. Melting together sundry genres into one happy heart warmer, it avoids the indulgent role of the typical ice cream binging, Kleenex-drenched chick flick. After a snazzy title sequence, we see Peter Colt (a charming Paul Bettany) sluggishly thwacking a tennis ball, mid-game, while he numbly says, “We all start off life with a dream.” Our friend Peter wanted to be a tennis great. Now on the brink of retirement, he’s earned nothing but a ranking of 119th (at his peak he was 11th) and a horde of leathery British wenches that eagerly crave him as their club’s resident instructor. Surely there must be some outlet for him to escape this cruel fate. Did I fail to mention the upcoming Wimbledon tournament?
I could really stop the plot summary here — you know the ending. Of course he meets a beautiful girl, in this case American tennis prodigy Lizzy Bradbury (a sexy Kirsten Dunst) and they fall into a stale and cliched love. But watch out, Peter — Lizzie’s control-freak father (Sam Neill) will stop at nothing to have his daughter win, even if it means that she must abstain from amazing pre-game sex and romantic quips with the tarnished tennis legend. Surprisingly, Peter starts winning his matches (gasp!). And while his family (consisting of an indolent brother, an aloof mother, and a father living in a tree house in the backyard) is in tatters, somehow his winning manages to mend his parents’ broken marriage. And while you can almost hear the clicking cogs of the formulaic plot, this movie manages to entertain.
Essentially, watching “Wimbledon” is like getting your teeth pulled with anesthesia — you know the process, you know the outcome, and yet everything is somehow amazingly enjoyable. In an attempt to make the tennis games more visceral (nothing associated with Lacoste can ever be considered gritty), Loncraine turns each match into a focused, brooding face off. Even though it’s totally ridiculous, I buy it. The games were taut and exciting, giving random 40-something women ideal opportunities for wild shrieks and hysterical gasps (come on, people, it’s tennis — and Hollywood tennis at that). Even the predictable love story, a cute game of cathartic sex and gooey puppy love, manages to leave you swooning. With my self-restraint for tennis-related puns weakening, I’ll say that this love match wins.
However, don’t get me wrong. It isn’t great. More of a zero-to-hero story of athleticism (think “The Big Green,” “Little Giants,” etc.) than a traditional chick flick, it works better as an inspirational story of a man’s renewal than as a love story. Peter’s relationship with Lizzie is simply too riddled with cliches to be anything exciting. Complete with the controlling father, an impetuous romantic escape, lugubrious rain, and a change of heart in the airport, the relationship is strongly founded on a chick flick chassis. But, who cares — it still manages to make you feel happy and uplifted.
While the movie does offer audiences a smarter, wittier British breed of romantic comedy, its predictability keeps the film from rising above “good,” “okay,” or (to borrow from the Theta vernacular) “cute.” But that isn’t anything to be ashamed of. As multiplex filler, the movie provides a kind of cheery euphoria (or maybe that’s a product of our chemical-laden grade-D meat). And while it’s no “Clueless” or “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” this quasi-chick flick is satisfying nonetheless. Well, I’ve said all that I can — now the ball is in your court.
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