‘Tennis’ competitive but lacks follow-through
Hall of fame basketball coach Pete Carrill believed the way someone plays a sport reflects who he or she is as a person. He believed there to be no greater window onto a man’s soul than how he handles himself on the court, course, track or field. But can the same be said of artists? I have always hypothesized that the way an artist plays a sport would be reflected in his art. Hemingway was probably a strong, determined fisherman, flawed only in his insistence to never ask for help. Keats was likely an expert badminton player, waif-like and delicate. Shakespeare was no doubt a four-sport letterman and all-around stud.But how to be sure?Yesterday, with the help of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, I decided to find out. Thursday was the world premiere of “Tennis, Anyone?” a movie about two aspiring actors and avid tennis players who find adventure and ultimately meaning in the bizarre world of the celebrity tennis tournament circuit. Accepting the invitation of the film’s title at face value, I called over to the festival’s press room to inquire about arranging a match with the two writers of the movie. To my astonishment, they accepted.
Donal Logue and Kirk Fox wrote the movie together after meeting on the set of the Mel Gibson war film “The Patriot.” Logue was going through a divorce, and the duo’s common love for tennis led them to enter celebrity tournaments and become fast friends.Logue is a successful television and film actor with an intellectual background (he’s a Harvard grad) that often leads him to ask tormenting questions about the worth of his profession. Fox is a failed tennis pro who teaches big-time movie producers backhands in partial return for acting spots and a chance at a big break. On the whole, the pair play themselves in “Tennis, Anyone?”So how do they play tennis? The answer is, very well indeed. Unlike other sports movies – one thinks most embarrassingly of “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” in which Matt Damon’s reverse-pivot shank-slice was passed off as a swing that could beat Bobby Jones – “Tennis, Anyone?” was shot using only actors who play the game well.Fox, for one, displays the talent of the expert tennis pro he once was. He’s long and lean with sweeping, graceful strokes. In the movie, Fox claims he once took Agassi to a tiebreaker and that he can serve 135 mph, faster than Pete Sampras. Whether that is true is up for debate. But I wouldn’t want to face him in a five-setter.Logue, who also directed and produced the movie, is also a strong player but is hindered by a lack of finesse so crucial to such a strategic game. He’s consistent, but only in his desire to hit the ball as hard as he possibly can, damn the consequence. Point construction and strategy is not his specialty. His backhand either bounces on the baseline or the back fence. He wants to be in control of a point, just like he was in control of the movie (he directed and produced “Tennis, Anyone?”)
Shortly after playing some points with the duo, I watched their film. As it turns out, my hypothesis held true. Logue’s movie turns out to be a lot like his tennis game – all over the place, only sometimes offering clean, right-on-the-money winners. Logue said he wanted to make a “severely independent movie that didn’t follow any Hollywood formulas,” and in truth he succeeded in this regard. Unfortunately, the film is different from mainstream movies not because it avoids formulaic plots, but rather because it has too many of them, none of which are fully seen through. On the one hand, the movie is at times a “Swingers”-like exposé about young aspiring male actors who bond over vintage cars, strip-joints, sports and a shared “isn’t the whole industry absurd” humor.On the other hand, there’s the spiritual odyssey plot, common to sports movies, of the lost soul helped by a mysterious, ascetic instructor (Mr. Miyagi, Bagger Vance, etc.) who reveals life’s true meaning through vague platitudes such as “Remember, tennis is the joyous expression of life” and “a man’s soul is revealed through his backhand.” Fox plays this role in “Tennis, Anyone?” The script also makes stabs at the paternal homage movie, a la “Big Fish.” In these movies, the son comes to learn after his father’s death that his dad’s wacky behavior and philosophies actually contained unrealized gems of wisdom. With only a passing mention early in “Tennis Anyone?” Fox’s father and his strange mantras (“Ria” – air spelled backward) become a rallying point for the two men at the end of the film, ultimately leading them to happiness and success.
It’s not that any of these plots are particularly flawed (they’ve worked before); there are simply too many of them. Nor does it mean that there aren’t really fabulous moments in the movie. There are, such as an outrageous cameo by Paul Rudd as a porn star who shows up at tennis country clubs for “all the hot [expletive].” And Logue’s haplessness, especially during a failed stand-up routine as a Taliban cleric hiding in a cave (“talk about bad cell phone reception!”), is as funny as it is painful to watch. At its best, the film’s sense of humor is quick, unexpected and right on the money.The movie, like Logue’s tennis game, just needs a little more focus.”Tennis, Anyone?” plays again at the Isis on Saturday at 1:15 p.m.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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