In his autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious, John McEnroe pauses a moment to acknowledge Rod Frawley, the Australian tennis player who, at the relatively advanced age of 28, vaulted out of unseeded oblivion to face SuperBrat himself in the 1981 semifinal-cum-Macca tantrum at Wimbledon. In Richard Loncraine’s gooey romance, the Frawley analogue is “journeyman veteran” Peter Colt (Paul Bettany), who has only to finish out his wild-card entry at Wimbledon before he will bid farewell to a frustrating career built on world-class mediocrity. Canoodling with yummy Yank tennis starlet Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), however, proves to be pure athletic Viagra—their mutual infatuation acts on Peter as a performance-enhancing drug, and just in time for Colt’s last professional hurrah.
Filmed at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club during the 2003 competition, Wimbledon attempts to enter the competitive brainscape via a surfeit of moony voice-over (“We all start out in life with a dream,” Peter muses at the outset) and CGI-aided intimacy with the tangled trajectories of the tennis ball. Like most Britcoms made for export, the movie keeps one anxious eye on the American market, plying the tourists with familiar comforts (cue pointless, geographically incorrect chocolate-box shots of Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall). It also positions Bettany to inherit the neck-pinching mantle Hugh Grant wore in the Working Title products Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill: the charming, bumbling, chronically embarrassed English gent reduced to face-scrunching and stammering faux pas by the allures of an enigmatic and somewhat ill-tempered American woman.
The appealing leads have strong chemistry, but it’s the wrong kind: an affectionate big-brother/little-sister rapport that leaves a discomfiting taint on their more amorous clinches. Unlike Grant, Bettany never seems to signal his nose-holding boredom with the Richard Curtis–caliber material, but he does cut an incongruously pale and ethereal figure in the sports arena, as if Nicole Kidman had been cast in Bend It Like Beckham. The usually wondrous Dunst has a hard go of it too, especially when Lizzie has to fly into an undermotivated homonymic hissy fit: “Love means nothing in tennis, zero,” she spits at her bewildered swain, who at this late stage surely must have some grasp of basic scoring procedures. In an as-himself cameo, our McEnroe skips any such condescending tutorials to grind his old saw about the prelapsarian age of the wooden racket—a brief but welcome distraction from the numbing back-and-forth of rom-com bipolarity.