Film

Zero Love: Tennis Comedy ‘Break Point’ Never Scores

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The first famous tennis player was King Louis X of France. Nicknamed Louis the Quarreler for his domestic politics, meaning he was likely a real pain to the ref, King Louis is renowned for two facts in athletic lore: He invented the indoor tennis court, and, after a hard, hot match in 1316, he chugged liters of wine and died.

Six hundred and ninety-nine years later, Louis’s influence on the sport continues. Jimmy Price, the main character in Jay Karas’s tennis dramedy Break Point, is his descendant. Played with gross, grinning verve by Jeremy Sisto, Jimmy is a drunk, a jerk, and a tyrant. In his first scene, Jimmy pounds booze in the locker room, terrorizes his doubles partner into quitting, and attempts to blackmail an umpire who called his shot out of bounds. Off with his racquet head.

It’s time to retire — at 35, he’s outlived the doomed king by a decade — but this isn’t that kind of movie. This is the kind of movie where Jimmy takes one more run at glory, and we’re supposed to trot along like a ball boy. Or, really, this is the kind of movie that’s ostensibly about tennis, while not actually getting into the rules or psychology of the game other than a good gag where a clerk (Adam DeVine) advises Jimmy to rub his balls against his actual balls to feel superior over his opponent. We know that there are serves and backhands and fault lines, but the rest is a sweaty muddle. After a match, Jimmy is accused of throwing the game. Really? It’s impossible to tell — the moment is the filmic equivalent of a foot fault.

Gene Hong’s script plays like a random automatic serving machine. Ideas bounce all over the place, only to be quickly followed by others. There’s a subplot about Jimmy falling in love with a chat-room sex worker (the bubbly Jenny Wade), a larger one about Jimmy and his estranged brother Darren (David Walton, solid) reconnecting as teammates more than ten years after Jimmy dumped him for a pro. Can methodical Darren temper Jimmy’s wild serve? Perhaps. Karas showcases the actors’ surprisingly good tennis skills, like the continuous volley they do while reciting the lyrics to “Bust a Move” and the deft way Sisto spins his racquet. But rather than develop these two as characters, Break Point tries to score too many points, lobbing in a rivalry between Jimmy and his ex-partner, plus Darren’s crush on a veterinarian (Amy Smart) who works for their widowed dad (J.K. Simmons), a romance that is hard to encourage when her boyfriend Gary (Vincent Ventresca), a slick hair-dye baron, proves one of the funniest highs of the movie.

In an even weirder narrative long shot, Darren, a substitute middle-school teacher, reluctantly befriends one of his students, Barry (veteran child actor Joshua Rush). Barry is a bizarre creation. He dresses in gawky tennis brights (“He looks like Katy Perry fucked Pinocchio,” jokes Jimmy), dreams of being a stork-armed ball boy, and speaks like a kid who learned English from porn movies. The latter is deliberate. Attempting to lure Darren over to his house to watch Harry Potter, Rush acts over-confidently casual. Earlier, when Darren is aghast at how chipperly Barry prods him about his mother’s death, the boy drops his voice and tries again. “How did she die?” he asks with a false Dr. Phil purr.

Rush is great, but the movie can’t get a handle on the character. It implies he’s trying to escape an awful home life, but Jimmy and Darren couldn’t care less, and so the film doesn’t either. Instead, Break Point treats him like a puppy, never even pausing to consider that a child whose guardians are screwed up enough to let him spend a weekend in Palm Springs with two adult male strangers is probably so emotionally damaged that the heroes shouldn’t pile on and treat the kid like dirt.

This might work if Break Point were comedically unhinged, and didn’t, say, indulge in sporadic flurries of acoustic guitar. The new HBO comedy special 7 Days in Hell — this summer’s second tennis spoof — could score that point without breaking a sweat. Directed by Jake Szymanski and starring Andy Samberg and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow of Game of Thrones) as rivals in a week-long Wimbledon match, this 45-minute lark has cocaine snorting, Swedish prison escapes, mid-match threesomes, a murderous overhand, and a haughty performance by Nebraska‘s June Squibb as the Queen of England. (Plus there are cameos from Serena Williams and Chris Evert for court cred.) When it comes to real sports, most champions are methodical. But when it comes to our sports spoofs, the best ones swing a wild serve that wins the game.

Break Point

Directed by Jay Karas

Broad Green Pictures

Opens September 4