Mark it well, dear reader. This is surely the first -- and most likely the last -- time you'll see the names Bernie Mac and Paul Bettany in the same review, let alone the same sentence. Is this it? Have forces finally converged to create the ultimate cosmic collision of high and low, sacred and profane, the big-brash-and-funny and the pale-blond-and-weedy? Are the end times upon us?
No, it's just a between-seasons Friday, as propitious a time as any to release "Mr. 3000" and "Wimbledon," a couple of bland, unobjectionable comedies starring two of Hollywood's most reliable supporting players. And it's merely a coincidence that these two actors happen to be portraying has-been athletes, each of whom makes an unlikely comeback and in the process Gets the Girl and Learns What's Really Important in Life.
The tip-off that happy endings are in store isn't necessarily a spoiler, when it's made clear within minutes that both "Mr. 3000" and "Wimbledon" will hew faithfully to the rules of light, undemanding comic diversion. Even when Bernie Mac affects a nasty, snarling scowl as the title character of "Mr. 3000," the audience can sense that it'll be only a matter of time before he melts into a puddle of life-affirming goo. As Stan Ross, Mac plays a member of the Milwaukee Brewers who seems to have graduated from the Barry Bonds School of Comportment and Fan Relations. Once Ross gets his 3,000th base hit and is assured a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he quits, mid-pennant race (after running into the stands to snatch the souvenir ball out of a stunned youngster's hands).
Ross is arrogant, a shameless showboat and a misanthrope -- in other words, there aren't many reasons to care when it's discovered that Ross actually has only 2,997 hits to his name and he's forced to re-up with the Brewers a full nine years after his retirement in order to get into Cooperstown. The ensuing scenes unfold with uninspired predictability: the montage of Ross's Cinderella-on-steroids physical reconditioning, the hazing at the hands of his younger, faster, stronger teammates, the appearance of a love interest (a tough ESPN reporter played by Angela Bassett) and, of course, the climactic scene in which he must choose between his ambition and the well-being of his team.
In the course of "Mr. 3000," Mac manages to find some moments of comedy within a movie that often feels like it's going into extra innings. Although the writing and direction are flabby, the drama contrived and the romance utterly unbelievable, Mac -- who has become a star as a stand-up comedian and on his self-titled sitcom -- evinces his signature brand of grumbling, physically subtle humor. "Mr. 3000" may not catapult Mac's career out of the park, but he has proved he can hold the big screen for longer than the few minutes he has heretofore been relegated to in movies.
Faring considerably better is Paul Bettany in "Wimbledon," a high lob of romantic fluff from the producers who confected "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill." Bettany plays Peter Colt, a 32-year-old British tennis player whose early promise peaked when he was ranked 11th for several months; now he's at 119 and is on the verge of retirement to coach randy ladies at a tony country club. When Colt receives a wild card to play at Wimbledon, he decides that the tournament will be his last hurrah. But when he embarks on an affair with a brash, aggressive American player named Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), suddenly his game improves and he actually has a shot at winning the thing.
"Wimbledon" is directed by Richard Loncraine ("Richard III," "Brimstone & Treacle"), who uses all sorts of fizzy edits and whizzing digital effects to approximate what it must be like in center court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The visuals get a little vertiginous at times, but on the whole, "Wimbledon" gets the tennis right (Dunst and Bettany trained for four months with former champion Pat Cash, and their moves are surprisingly authentic, down to every serve-grunt).
Most everything else comes straight out of Ye Olde Shoppe of British Whimsy, from Colt's dotty parents in his posh ancestral manse to the promiscuous use of such vernacular terms as "wanker," "snog" and "bollocks," guaranteed to elicit charmed giggles from those Americans who still get a charge of those fancy-talking Limeys.
Such force-fed quaintness is harmless enough -- a recent audience lapped it up like great dollops of clotted cream. But "Wimbledon" puts a foot wrong when it comes to Lizzie, whom Dunst plays with her placid, understated style. It's impossible to believe her as the ruthless player and voracious man-eater Lizzie is supposed to be; part of the attraction in "Wimbledon" should be the push-pull between the unapologetically ambitious American and the congenitally restrained English gentleman. Instead, Dunst and her character, as well as any erotic tension, recede quickly to the background while Colt makes his unlikely way up the tournament ranks. Colt's ultimate battle turns out to be not with Lizzie but with his conscience, when he is forced to compete against his best friend, or when a supportive ballboy is struck on the head by an errant serve.
The best thing about all of this is Bettany, until now best known as Russell Crowe's confederate in "A Beautiful Mind" and "Master and Commander," who has fully come into his own as a leading man viewers can happily root for and, by the way, as a bona fide heartthrob. With his unshowy demeanor and pleasant if unprepossessing features, Bettany doesn't exude anything in particular that would qualify as star quality. It's simply there, in his physical assurance, his quiet focus and his ability to sneak up on a scene and steal it, even with Dunst dimpling as often and energetically as she can.
Bettany has reportedly said that he considers himself the actor the studios hire when they don't want to pay Jude Law's salary. That may be true, but he could also be called this generation's Trevor Howard, who had a similar talent for conveying simmering depths beneath a carefully maintained veneer of cultured decency. If Hollywood types ever remake "Brief Encounter," they've got their man.
Mr. 3000 (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and profanity.
Wimbledon (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality and partial nudity.
Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) and a ball boy (Jonathan Timmins) wish each other luck in "Wimbledon."