The hardest movie to make, judging by results anyway, has to be a romantic comedy. Really good romantic comedies seem to have to gone the way of the dodo, as filmmakers tend to rely on the charisma of the actors playing the roles instead of trying to come up with an interesting script or an original idea. Although, when you think about it, perhaps that's always been the case with the genre. When people refer to the heyday of romantic comedies they don't talk about any film in particular, instead they refer to teams of actors — Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, for instance.
Of course filmmakers don't need to feel too badly;, nobody seems to have had much luck with the whole romantic comedy thing. Shakespeare's weakest efforts were when he ventured into that field. As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night can't hold a candle to his dramas and histories. While each of the plays contains some nice comic business and a couple of memorable secondary characters, there is a decided lack of substance at the core. Invariably the love interests who are supposed to carry the play can't sustain our interest over the entire five acts.
Like today's filmmakers, Shakespeare stuck to the tried and true formula that was expected by his audience. A case of mistaken identity, most likely compounded by female characters disguised as men (in Shakespeare's time the additional twist of men playing the roles of women would have given that an extra layer of humour for his audience), was the most common device, with the subsequent confusion being relied on for humour and plot advancement.
In today's romantic comedy the screenwriters seem to choose from one of a few formulae: two people with nothing in common who overcome obstacles to find true love in the end, a couple thrown together by circumstances start off casually and gradually become serious in a whirlwind courtship with one or both being scared away by the idea of love until they realize in the end they are made for each other, or two people who were once a couple and have long since moved on to others are brought back together and discover that they never really stopped loving each other. If a director is feeling really daring he might cut and paste from the above, but it's safe to say that there won't be much deviation from any of those scenarios.
It's no wonder romantic comedies end up relying so heavily on the actors involved, and their abilities to make us care about what happens to their characters. The audience isn't going to see these movies for their innovative scripts, they're going to see them for the chance they offer to escape into a world where fairy tales endings happen and dreams come true. In order for that to be successful the audience has to at least sympathize with the leads, and the script needs to provide some sort of dream come true potential. Wimbledon, starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst as the star crossed lovers, succeeds because it not only features two skilled and likeable actors, but the plot provides the audience a chance to cheer for the long shot.
Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst play tennis professionals competing at the renowned Wimbledon tournament in England. While Dunst's character, Lizzie Bradbury, is the latest American phenomenon taking the world by storm, Bettany's Peter Colt is a veteran player who has managed to make a living on the circuit but has never seen his star really ascend. Peter is playing in his thirteenth and last Wimbledon and is just hoping not to embarrass himself too much, while Lizzie is making her first appearance and has every intention of winning the tournament.
They meet before the tournament begins when Peter is accidentally given the passkey to Lizzie's hotel room instead of his own, and things develop from there. As the tournament progresses so does their relationship, and as their relationship progresses Peter's success rate on the courts rises. When the crisis comes it is in the shape of Lizzie's desire to win taking precedence over her desire for a relationship. "Love," she reminds Peter, "is equal to zero in tennis." (A game of tennis is won by the first player to win four points scored: fifteen, thirty, forty, and game, and both players start at love, or zero.)
While Ms. Dunst is her usual vivacious self and very believable as an early twenty-something tennis star, the real revelation of the movie is Paul Bettany. Previously I had only seen him in supporting roles in A Knight's Tale and Master And Commander, while here he pretty much carries the movie. Ms. Dunst may have top billing, but it's Bettany who is on the screen for the majority of the movie and he is brilliant. Not only is his comic timing spot on, his depiction of a person resigned to surrendering his dreams, only to be given one last, and completely unexpected, chance at fulfilling them is perfectly drawn.
He is able to convey both his wonder at his success, and the knowledge that it could be taken away at anytime, with a realism that makes it easy to cheer for him, and never leaving you feeling like you're being manipulated. Unlike some other actors where being self-effacing comes across as affectation, with Bettany it comes across as a natural part of the character he's created. The fact that Bettany does not appear to be merely playing an extension of himself but has created the character of Peter Colt goes a long way in making his performance that much more believable. It's not just Paul Bettany up on that screen, but a person who we can relate to on some level. At one point in time we've all felt the inevitable turning of the wheel where reality snatches away our dream, even if it's only the realization that our goal of being an astronaut as a child is unobtainable.
As this is a movie centred around tennis it only stands to reason that a fair bit of time is spent on the courts. The film makers have done a remarkable job in recreating the action and tension of a high stakes match. There was a time in my life when I could be found watching the men's final from Wimbledon first thing on a Sunday morning, and Wimbledon the movie brings that world to life both on and off the court. I wouldn't know how factually accurate it is, but as far as capturing the spirit and the atmosphere it does a great job.
The special features on the DVD go a long way to help explain how they were able to recreate the shots (it didn't hurt that they used professionals from the tour to play opposite the actors in the matches or that the actors trained for an extended period of time under former Australian pro Pat Cash) by using camera set-ups and CGI tennis balls. The other features provided takes us on a behind the scenes tour of the Wimbledon facility, and a commentary by Paul Bettany and director Richard Loncraine.
Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst may not have the sexual energy of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but they make a pleasant and comfortable couple. This is a relaxing and charming movie, which like its male star exceeds expectations both on and off the tennis court. Now that it's a couple of years old you should be able to pick up a copy of the DVD either used or inexpensively. At any price though, Wimbledon makes for a charming diversion, and a genuinely enjoyable hour and a half.