The producers of Notting Hill starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant now bring us Wimbledon starring Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany.
The formula is almost the same.
Both are British-American Love Stories that seek to please audiences on both sides of the pond. And both concern a high-powered American superstar that must bend to a low wattage British sputterer until they hem and haw their way to bliss.
To make this formula work, audience members in each country must laughingly admit to their foibles -- and learn to like it. The British must cop to the fact that they are upper class twits. The Americans, on the other hand, must own up to being crass, over-worked, entrepreneurial boors.
This paradigm has been worked to death by Working Title Films. They started with Four Weddings And A Funeral, played it out through Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and Love, Actually with Hugh Grant taking the British parts and Andie MacDowell, Julia Roberts, and Renée Zellwegger playing the American girls (even though Renée makes a bold attempt at a British impersonation.) Theirs is a transatlantic candor that was first made safe in the climactic scene of A Fish Called Wanda when Kevin Klein forces John Cleese to stand in a barrel full of oil. At gunpoint and, despite his rather embarrassing position, Cleese reminds Kevin that America lost the war in Viet Nam. "It was a tie!" yells Kevin, the stupid, gun-happy, (read American) CIA operative. And it is has been ever thus: Americans and Brits despising each other's national flaws, yet falling in love. So when you have a successful recipe like this, why burn the bangers? The only question is: what next? Well, why not add championship tennis into the mix?
Paul Bettany (Master and Commander, A Beautiful Mind) gets the Hugh Grant part as tennis player Peter Colt. Not as coltish as he once was, Peter is nonetheless long and blonde and dappled. And when he stretches up to the blue heavens above the green courts of Wimbledon to smack his serve, we see how sun sensitive these Brit really are. Peter was once ranked 11th in the world, but the dreary arena of competitive tennis is too tiring for him to continue. As we begin, Peter is about to retire to the role of tennis pro/cocksman at a high-end country club. Even Peter's parents have given up on the lad; and Peter's brother, who is occupying the same space that Hugh Grant's roommate did in Notting Hill, goes so far as to place bets against him at the local OTB.
Enter the American.
Kirsten Dunst is our pint-sized Julia Roberts. And she is, sin of all sins, successful. The up-and-coming women's pro, Lizzy Bradbury, is coached by her overprotective Dad (Sam Neill), works hard on and off the court, and drinks health shakes. Kirsten's character, and this British production's reaction to her, reminded me of a scene in Chariots of Fire when we CUT TO the American Team working out at the 1924 Olympics. Set to a pulsing Vangelis track, the Yanks ferociously train, far ahead of their time in technique and attitude. Americans may be common but they are tireless, and as distasteful as it is, they win. But they must sacrifice a 24-hour day, every day, to do so, and commit to things like drinking health shakes. Brits are apparently not only afraid of this zeal, but completely fascinated by it. The definition of Love/Hate.
A jolt of what Lizzy's got, however, is just what Peter needs and when boy meets girl you can tell they should partner up. Call it love, call it sex-coaching, Peter's game improves every time he and Kirsten make a racket in bed. Set against the international jet set world of professional tennis, these two love birds face the exact same kind of problems Hugh Grant faced when trying to woo the international film star Julia Roberts plays in Notting Hill. Both men are rigidly polite about the situation; after all, it's ladies first -- and famous ladies before them. But when Peter begins to win at Wimbledon and Lizzy begins to lose her concentration, it turns from a romance into a sports movie.
And when it does, it veers away from the formula.
Peter suddenly has balls. Big, yellow fuzzy ones. And if the CGI used to smack them back and forth is any indication, Peter's fling with Kirsten is better than Wheaties. Suddenly, we realize what this film is about: Will Peter win Wimbledon? And you don't have to be Peter's brother to come out ahead at the tout. And yet as impassioned as we are about seeing Peter's comeback, and though we've honestly been set up for this from the beginning -- he's British. What's he doing winning? Especially while Kirsten has to lose. It defies not only the Working Title formula, but nature. "We never win! Good luck, sir!" shout the staff at the London hotel where Peter's staying as he leaves to play his last match. They're as shocked as we are. What is this pale, polite lad who should be in the stands rooting for Kirsten doing in the finals?
Without Kirsten to bandy with, we get Peter's internal dialogue but it's just an imitation of the stuttering insecurity Hugh Grant already owns the patent on. Facing down against Kirsten's former lover, who deserves a good whacking, Peter's interior patter reveals that the loser is changing into a winner, from Brit to Yank. Peter, like the filmmakers, have abandoned romance to try to win. And it just doesn't come off, love.
Game. Set. But no match.