October, 2004, Comedy

Directed by:Richard Loncraine

Starring:Kirsten Dunst, Paul Bettany, and James McAvoy

This is the latest in what might appropriately be called the Notting Hill franchise, that collection of British romantic comedies featuring a charming, if diffident male protagonist with a typically eccentric circle of family and friends who finds true love despite overwhelming odds with a female as desirable as she is unattainable. From Four Weddings and a Funeral through last year's thoroughly mawkish Love Actually, American audiences have evidenced an sizeable appetite for this formula, so the producers try it here with a transatlantic cast featuring Spiderman ingénue Kirsten Dunst and Great Britain's Paul Bettany, the ship's surgeon in last year's wonderful Master and Commander

Dunst plays tennis wunderkind Lizzie Bradbury, an aggressive American competitor making her first appearance in the sport's most famous tournament. Lizzie's inclined to sample the sexual prowess of male members on the tour, so when the charming but professionally fading Peter Colt, (Bettany) mistakenly wanders into her hotel room, she locks on to him with the serene self-confidence of a heat-seeking missile. In no time at all, the pair are hopping into bed and Colt's subsequent improbable success, (in what he's announced will be his last professional appearance) seems bolstered by the confidence his inamorata provides. Of course, the path of true love is never easy; in this case, roadblocks on the way to connubial bliss are posed by Lizzie's overprotective father/coach, (Sam Neill) and her own obsessive determination to never let something as wholesome as a real relationship stand in the way of winning the tournament. To the surprise of absolutely no one in the audience however, one will win and the other lose-- so that in the end, both will discover the essential importance of their relationship.

An infectious balance between the leads in this type of movie is absolutely critical to success and this imperative goes well beyond the old cliché about "chemistry"; if one half of the couple is more plausible or likeable than the other, the entire enterprise gets thrown off kilter, taking the edge off the plot's developments and frustrating the possibility of an emotional connection with the audience. Symmetry is everything.

Of all the young female stars in her generation, Dunst seems willing to tackle ambitious parts that often undercut her status as a movie celebrity; at the tender age of 22, she's appeared in over three-dozen films, ranging from the bitingly satirical Wag The Dog to the dreamily romantic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet she's coasting here; her Lizzie is carelessly attractive enough, but Dunst completely fails to convey the steely determination to win at all costs that the script calls for. Bettany, on the other hand, manages to make his character's also-ran status both believable and immensely likeable; long suffering with his family and generous to friend and opponent alike, Peter's just the sort of underdog an audience finds it easy to champion. 

Despite the presence of John McEnroe and Chris Evert to lend authenticity, there isn't a shred of real credibility or tension in any part of this saccharine piece of fluff, which you'll find likeable in direct proportion to your propensity for yet another dose of light-hearted English soap-opera suds.    

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