“Wimbledon,” is a fanciful tennis-themed romance that compounds the old dilemma of “Will he get the girl?” with “Will he get the trophy?” But the answers are too predictable and laughs too scattered for this middling Universal release to generate much in the way of humor or suspense, although central pairing of Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst has some novelty. Virtually unchallenged in an unusually dry season for romantic comedies, pic’s genial Brit-wit sensibility and cross-gender appeal could, however, serve up strong numbers domestically and abroad.
Timed to hit theaters at the end of the U.S. Open, “Wimbledon,” with its scenes of intense competition and faulty refereeing, can’t help but call to mind the controversial recent match between real-life pros Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams. Incidental parallels may prove more amusing and resonant than anything in pic itself, however, which bounces back and forth between court and courtship with no more than serviceable results.
Peter Colt (Bettany) is a 31-year-old English tennis player who, as he discloses in weary voiceover, was once ranked 11th worldwide but has since slipped to 119th. Well past his prime and on the verge of retirement, Peter prepares for his final Wimbledon tournament when, in one of the hastier meet-cutes in recent movie memory, he stumbles into the hotel room of Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst), a girl who apparently thinks nothing of showering with the door open.
Lizzie, a hotshot American player with an aggressive courtside manner, is determined to win big at her first Wimbledon. She makes no secret of her instant attraction to Peter, who as a result finds both his lovelife and his game newly invigorated. Handily defeating one opponent after another, Peter is suddenly a long-shot contender for the title — until Lizzie’s domineering coach and father, Dennis (Sam Neill), tries to put an end to what he sees as a dangerous obstacle to his daughter’s career.
Although sports angle gives “Wimbledon” some muscle and dialogue, with its overlay of European sophistication, offers sharp banter, pic remains a conventional and ultimately meager love story. At one point, Lizzie accuses Peter of using sex merely to improve his game, and, despite sporadic bursts of chemistry between Bettany and Dunst, pic never really convinces to the contrary.
Best known for his work as a dramatic foil in “A Beautiful Mind” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” Bettany decisively squashes any lingering doubts about his viability as a romantic-comedy lead with a witty, self-deprecating but wholly self-assured performance. A former tennis novice, Bettany endured four months of training (with 1987 Wimbledon champ Pat Cash) before shooting.
Dunst, though as fresh-faced here as she was in the “Spider-Man” movies, has a tougher time getting a handle on her character. Because pic can’t decide whether to make Lizzie a victim or a sore loser, Dunst is forced to play coy, self-possessed, furious and intimidated, sometimes all at once. Aside from frequently throwing her racket on the ground in frustration, however, she isn’t called on to display her technique on the court.
Screenplay (by Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) is at once underdeveloped and overpopulated, with too many ancillary characters Peter’s archrival, American star Jake Hammond (Austin Nichols), is set up as a too-easy villain and perfunctory rival for Lizzie’s affections. As smugly played by Nichols, Jake comes off as a trash-talking pretty boy who couldn’t be more loathsome.
Offering a welcome touch of humanity are Peter’s father (Bernard Hill), mother (Eleanor Bron) and rascally brother, Carl (James McAvoy). Nikolaj Coster-Waldau also has fine, subtle moments as Peter’s friend, training partner and onetime opponent.
Helmer Richard Loncraine (“Richard III,” telepic “My House in Umbria”) brings stylistic flourishes to the tennis scenes, deploying rapid zooms, slow-mo and ball point-of-view shots to enjoyably visceral effect. Early matches feature a bit too much lazy crosscutting, although the later, tenser sequences are shot in more satisfying long takes. Game play is impressive across the board, albeit with more rough-and-tumble diving and sliding than at an actual tennis match.
Setting is thoroughly persuasive, thanks to carefully timed shoots at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships as well as gorgeous on-location lensing in the streets of London.