Starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Two tennis players fall in love during Wimbledon in this entertaining romantic comedy.
Romantic comedies this century have been dismal. Sure, a few good ones sneak in here and there. But most of them are just appallingly bad. That wasn’t always the case. During cinema’s “Golden Age,” good romantic comedies abounded. I have to wonder what’s different now, what’s changed in our society that prevents romantic comedies from being good.
Wimbledon proves to be an exception. It is a good romantic comedy made this century. It embraces an element that is notably absent from many of its peers: the male perspective.
Romantic comedies are often dismissed as “chick flicks” and are noted for the actresses who often appear in them; Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Meg Ryan, and Kate Hudson have all been associated with the genre in the past. However, Wimbledon, like many classic romantic comedies, features a male lead of depth. In fact, many of the great romantic comedies contain not just strong male leads, but male point-of-view characters. With It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, What’s Up Doc?, His Girl Friday, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill (to name a few), we experience the movie from the man’s perspective. Many other great romantic comedies feature couples who have equal presence in the story. However, recent romantic comedies often ignore the male character altogether. He’s underdeveloped and uninteresting. It’s difficult to remember the lead male in movies such as Sweet Home Alabama (Josh Lucas), Confessions of a Shopaholic (Hugh Dancy), Letters to Juliet (Christopher Egan), and 27 Dresses (James Marsden).
That’s not case with Wimbledon. Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) is not an afterthought. The story of this charming and self-effacing journeyman tennis player is the focus of the movie. The importance of romance in the movie—it is love that pushes him to be greater than he ever thought he could be—gives the film solidly female appeal, yet it doesn’t try to appeal to women only. It remembers that “date movies” usually involve a male companion.
During Wimbledon, his last tournament before retirement, Peter meets rising American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst). Lizzie’s a young whippersnapper, who is the exact opposite of the unassuming Peter. She’s confident she will win the tournament, and she’s not afraid to say so. Naturally, these two opposites fall in love. Her confidence rubs off on Peter, leading him to excel in the tournament. Lizzie does fall into the cliché of the brash American who shakes up the repressed Brits (or, in some cases, Brits), but it’s a minor criticism.
Like the best romantic comedies, Wimbledon peoples the story with memorable supporting characters. The roles played by performers like Charles Coburn, Alice Brady, Mischa Auer, Simon Callow, Rhys Ifans, and Edward Everett Horton make the movie comedy classics. Here, Jon Favreau’s sports agent, Ron Roth, stands up with the best of them. Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron as Peter’s parents and James McAvoy as his brother, who continues to bet against him, create an enjoyable eccentric milieu. Peter’s practice partner, Dieter Prohl (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), however, is disappointingly normal.
Screenwriting manuals instruct their readers to avoid voice-over narration, claiming that it’s a crutch for weak writing. Viewers who have seen Sunset Blvd. and American Beauty among others, however, know that that’s more of a guideline than a rule. Wimbledon contains a lot of voice-over narration. We hear Peter’s inner thoughts and feelings, often in a stream-of-consciousness mode. I found this aspect of the film amusing rather than annoying. It added to the film rather than merely substituting for what the writers weren’t capable of conveying in any other way.
Peter’s voice over is not the only one we hear. John McEnroe, Chris Everett, Mary Carillo, and John Barrett provide commentary on the tennis matches. The tennis commentary is realistic by American standards; it varies little from the actual commentary that I heard during the matches I watched this year. Unfortunately, however, none of the commentators in those matches had the élan of McEnroe, whose vibrant personality comes through in the movie.
The film is unabashedly sentimental. It doesn’t feel the need to be edgy or ironic to fit in with the tenor of our age. And it manages to be sweet without crossing the line into sappy, which is a fine line to walk as the failures of many recent romantic comedies can demonstrate. Wimbledon is not groundbreaking. It doesn’t deviate from formula. But it creates interesting characters whom we want to watch fall in love, a feat that lately isn’t all that easy.