SOME MOVIES SAY that love will make you a better person. "Wimbledon" says that love will make you a better tennis player.
As messages go, I've certainly heard worse. As movies go, "Wimbledon" is a generally painless float down a lazy river. Lazy in the sense that there's nothing particularly fresh about this underdog-sports-drama-cum-romantic-comedy set during one of professional tennis's most prestigious tournaments. Painless in the sense that its stars (Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst) are cute and that the dialogue (courtesy of Adam Brooks) is pleasantly snappy. What's more, there's a third, stealth component -- in addition to the fairly cliched love story and the equally cliched come-from-behind trajectory of the sports plot -- that makes the movie almost (repeat, almost) interesting.
That's its ability (thanks to a little thing called "acting" and to some clever shooting and editing by director Richard Loncraine) to make visible what is normally invisible: the psychological game that goes on inside the head of the world-class athlete.
As Peter Colt, an aging (by pro tennis standards) player once ranked as high as 11th in the world, but now 119th and slipping, Bettany has a real ability to make us not just see but to feel his character's interior life. With frequent, self-doubting voice-over narrations and with a slightly twitchy, quintessentially British air of corrosive insecurity, the actor conveys perfectly the almost-sports-hero-on-the-skids. Loncraine underscores the impact of this performance by putting us on the tennis court with his swooping, zooming camera, where the 140 mph action -- and the sweat -- are palpable.
Of course, Colt doesn't remain a has-been in this, his last wild card appearance at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. What kind of movie would that be? Not this one, at any rate.
Instrumental in his eleventh-hour transformation from loser to champion is Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst), a young American tennis star at the top of her game who becomes, in short order, Colt's lover, muse, life coach and tennis adviser. Needless to say, there are obstacles to happily-ever-afterdom. Chief among them are Lizzie's overprotective father and coach (Sam Neill); a romantic as well as athletic rival for Colt (Austin Nichols); and Lizzie's own competitive nature.
In the end, all of it (and by "it" I mean life, love, poetic justice and happy endings) comes down to a single point. Doesn't it always? It's always one touchdown, one run, one basket, on which the entire world hangs.
"Wimbledon" is no exception to this rule. But when the game is played at such a high level, it almost makes the fact that you already know the final score irrelevant.
WIMBLEDON (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual content and a couple of smacks to the face. Area theaters.