After an unexceptional career, 31 year-old British tennis pro Peter Colt (Bettany) is about to play at one last Wimbledon before retiring. Then he falls for driven American women’s star Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst)...
The Working Title Britcom machine has turned out another well-tooled romance to the specifications that made Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones et al winners.
Along similar lines we have: the anxious, charming, upper-middle-class Englishman who has a nice way with diffident one-liners and trouble deciding which knickers to wear; the confident American woman who is more forward sexually than she is status conscious; and the oafish joker (in this case, James McAvoy as Peter’s ne’er-do-well brother) to do pratfalls and tip off the tabloid media to the liaison.
We also get the humorously estranged parents (Bernard Hill and Eleanor Bron) who bicker cheerfully towards an inevitable rapprochement as their son gallantly fights through the tournament draw, the oily sports agent (Favreau) with an eye to his percentage and the over-protective father (Neill)…
But where was Richard Curtis when they needed him? Brooks (whose French Kiss was perhaps Working Title’s most charmless rom-com) has written a poor man’s Curtis script — appetising but not scrumptious, amusing but not hilarious.
The tennis itself is ridiculously far-fetched, and yet this may still be the best tennis movie ever made. Of course, there have only been about two others — both the pits. Bettany and Dunst mimic the moves decently enough, and thanks to CGI the ball zips where it needs to.
But the atmosphere is curiously muted. If a British player really made it as far in the Championship as this guy, imagine the hoopla and hysteria. They should have enhanced the volume of the Centre Court spectators who found themselves being extras, for starters.
And it’s weirdly interesting that John McEnroe, who appears alongside Chris Evert in their real-life roles as NBC commentators, comes across as stiff and blushingly self-conscious delivering scripted lines when he’s such a smart, funny, natural personality on TV. Perhaps he should have improvised a match commentary.
Anyway, although ‘in tennis love means nothing’, love is very much what we’re really interested in here. And this element should easily please crowds, with Bettany the film’s ace, rather adorably, in an outing that is unusually blithe and sweet for him. Is he a real star yet? On this showing, we’d say surely so.
In tennis parlance, this fires off more moonballs to stay in play than outright winning shots. But Bettany is charming, and thankfully he and Dunst are appealing together.