THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It’s hard to believe but there’s never really been a movie about tennis. Practically every other sport – including dodgeball - has been given the big-screen treatment, but not tennis. That changes with Wimbledon, a combination sports movie/romantic comedy that goes in some unexpected directions.

On the surface, the film is pretty straightforward. Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) was once ranked 11th in the world, but is now in the final days of his career. He’s had more recent losses than wins, and he has just accepted a job as the tennis pro at a posh country club. Peter fully expects to get knocked out at Wimbledon early on. While at the competition, he meets Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), a hot young up-and-comer who is expected to take Wimbledon by storm. They fall in love while attempting to win.

Although the story may look by-the-numbers, it makes some interesting detours in its characterization. Peter is not the smug, winning hero we usually get. He’s riddled with self-doubt about his abilities; even he seems to think he’s washed up. His family is a mess, with his father going so far as to move into the backyard tree house after a marital spat. Peter’s brother, meanwhile, is quick to capitalize on being related to a famous athlete. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from wagering against Peter. Lizzie, meanwhile, is reputed to be something of a wild child. (Imagine Britney Spears as a tennis player.) She pretty openly makes advances toward male players, arguing that a little pre-game sex helps her relax.

After a typical movie “meet cute” in which he stumbles into the wrong hotel room, Peter and Lizzie fall into bed. What starts as a sexual liaison changes as they discover some genuine feelings for each other. The romance helps Peter’s game immensely. Inspired by his new love, he starts winning unexpectedly. It’s like he never lost his gift. The romance isn’t so great for her, though. Lizzie’s father, Dennis (Sam Neill), nearly hits the roof when he finds out about Peter. He notices that Lizzie’s game is suddenly off. Since he promised to help her fulfill her dream of winning Wimbledon, Dennis warns Peter to sod off as a protective gesture. Lizzie also attempts to back away temporarily, but is confused by her feelings.

Wimbledon reveals itself as being about something more than just whether Peter or Lizzie will win, or whether they will end up together. Instead, it is a story about the mindset that athletes live in. There are lots of little superstitions, rituals, and traditions that affect an athlete’s concentration. Something that benefits one person can hinder another. Someone who plays at the top of their game must juggle all these things, attempting to line them up or adjust them in exactly the right way so that winning is possible. The movie examines this process, showing how hard it can be to synchronize a personal goal with a professional one.

I like, too, the way Lizzie’s father is portrayed. A lot of movies would have made him a generic bad guy. This one uses the character to add complexity. He’s not opposed to Peter per se; he’s simply opposed to Peter at the current moment. In order for Lizzie to win, she needs to detach herself from emotional involvements. Dennis is merely looking out for his daughter.

Wimbledon additionally uses voice-overs to put us in the head of Peter as he plays. We hear his thoughts, his negative self-talk, his disbelief when he does something well. We listen as he remembers things other characters have said that inspire him. When he tells himself something to boost his self-confidence, we know exactly what he says. This helps create a clearer picture of how an athlete incorporates everything that’s going on in his/her life – how certain things are focused upon while others are blocked out. This is what made the movie work so well for me. In a number of different ways, it shows us how these people cope with various pressures in order to perform at the peak of their abilities.

Paul Bettany is terrific in the role of Peter. Rather than playing a straight romantic lead, he stays true to the character, neuroses and all. Bettany really lets us see Peter struggle with all the different pressures in his life. Kirsten Dunst is also very good at showing Lizzie’s dilemma. There’s a scene in which she confronts Peter about his inability to understand what she needs to win. Dunst really nails the moment. Sam Neill and Jon Favreau (as Peter’s agent) put in nice turns as well.

I don’t know if tennis is exactly the most exciting sport in the world, but director Richard Loncraine certainly makes it seem action-packed. His camera follows the ball as it flies back and forth across the court. Good competition scenes are crucial for sports-related movies. This one delivers them.

Wimbledon perhaps stays a little too close to convention in its ending. There’s really no doubt how things will resolve themselves, and the resolutions come quickly and without a lot of gray area. Also, the scenes involving Peter’s family are perhaps a bit too broad compared with the rest of the story. But as a portrayal of the athletic mindset, I really liked the film. Competition is such a major part of some people’s personalities; there’s a need to win as well as a desire. Wimbledon is very effective in showing how these tennis players get into a winning frame of mind, even as their personal baggage stands on the court behind them.

( out of four)

Wimbledon is rated PG-13 for language, sexuality and partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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