Tennis may be the sport least in need of play-by-play. It doesn't have the pauses of baseball, the bustling chaos of football, or the long stretches of boredom built into golf. It moves fast, and so long as the ball keeps moving, it remains fairly clear what's going on. In that, it's a lot like a romantic comedy or a sports film. Everyone pretty much knows the strategies and the rhythms of a boy-meets-girl story or a buildup-to-the-big-game plot. Only intriguing match-ups and subtle variations keep the forms interesting.
Wimbledon pairs effortlessly charming actors Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, but it has no faith that its stars can carry the film. In voiceover, Bettany explains exactly what his character feels at every moment, even when the action onscreen makes it clear. When he keeps his silence, guest announcer John McEnroe tries to boost the excitement of the many well-staged but far from extraordinary tennis sequences by making reference to his own career and spitting out exclamations like "Can you believe it?!" Well, yeah. Playing a professional also-ran in the twilight of his career—known, if at all, for ranking "11th in the world for most of 1996"—Bettany rises from wild-card to long-shot to serious contender in a sports success story that doesn't exactly reinvent the genre. Nor does his romance with rising tennis star Dunst, from their naked meet-cute to the overprotective father (Sam Neill) who frowns on their romance.
In spite of the familiarity, Dunst and Bettany ought to be able to have lunch with this material. But the odds shift against them every time the script hits a line like "In tennis, 'love' means nothing… zero." Director Richard Loncraine doesn't add much in the way of spice, and ace cinematographer Darius Khondji only makes his presence felt with some weird little Fight Club-y flourishes here and there. These seem to belong to another movie, one with more vibrant elements than the easily straightened romantic entanglements and the safely offscreen sex, both of which make Wimbledon the perfect movie for 14-year-old girls having a slumber party, and a must for everyone else to avoid.