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© 2004, Universal
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Peter (likable Paul Bettany, "Master and Commander") is an aging tennis star forced to confront a game that is slowly squeezing him out. Facing his last appearance at Wimbledon, Peter meets Lizzie (Kirsten Dunst), an up-and-coming American star who is entering her first English tournament. The two immediately hit it off, which improves Peter's game, but infuriates Lizzie's father (a stiff Sam Neill). Required to hide their relationship, the couple find that the realities of the tennis life always interfere with matters of the heart, forcing Peter to decide between the two, as he becomes the Cinderella story of the tournament and tastes success again.

Films about tennis are few and far between, yet romantic comedies are released every single weekend of the calendar year. "Wimbledon" (IMDb listing) is the brave new feature film looking to combine the two genres into a tart little British import.

Produced by Working Title Films, "Wimbledon" bears all the watermarks of that successful production company: the cheeky Brit characters, the slovenly Americans (here played by Jon Favreau), and the pop-music-infused romance that seems to glow from every angle. It has served them well in such blockbusters like "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and "Notting Hill," but the company is coming off their Optimus Prime of romantic comedies, last holiday's immaculate "Love Actually," which leaves the puppy-dog affection found here a bit on the stale side. Director Richard Loncraine ("Richard III") appears to be rushing the romantic side of the story, pushing Peter and Lizzie together quickly so other matters of the plot can be attended to. Thankfully, Bettany and Dunst have chemistry, which guides the relationship past the rocky roads of underdevelopment. Loncraine performs what is needed to help warm the film up, but his heart is elsewhere -- and that place is on the tennis court.

What really makes "Wimbledon" cook is the rare chance to get a player's view of the English traditions and pageantry of the title event. Loncraine skillfully soaks in the sights, which helps in the development of the Peter character, enhancing the regality of his final moment in the sun. It also adds much needed realism to the film, assisted with appearances by John McEnroe and Chris Evert as television commentators. Loncraine does get carried away now and again with some commercial camera tricks to sell Peter's inner monologue and the drama of the tight shots. However, for most of the tennis matches, Loncraine elects to cover the action respectfully, pulling back his camera to get a good look at the artistry of this sport, which Bettany fakes very well (assisted by a great score from Ed Shearmur). Much is made out of the romance in the picture, but truly, "Wimbledon" awakens when the action hits the grass courts.

It's pretty funny that a film like "Wimbledon" works only because of the expertly covered tennis action instead of the two gorgeous leads making goo-goo eyes at each other. For tennis fans, this film is a long time coming: a picture that actually shows some respect for the sport. For the romance fans, you could do better, but overall, this is a respectable package.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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