TIFF Review: Shia LaBeouf Is Aces In the Way Too Self Serious ‘Borg/McEnroe’

While watching Borg/McEnroe, the opening night film of the Toronto International Film Festival, I couldn’t help getting a little nostalgic for an American men’s tennis player like John McEnroe (played in the film by Shia LaBeouf). And I only say this because it seems like for the last few years – especially since Pete Sampras retired – American men’s tennis fans have had to sort of “adopt” players, like Roger Federer, to root for. (Obviously, the United States is doing just fine on the women’s side of things.) Also, there was something fun about McEnroe’s tantrums. Oh, I know, in the tennis world it’s not exactly proper to condone that type of behavior – but, whatever. (Also, the addition of replays has obviously cut down drastically the chance to argue about anything, really. It’s an era that’s not coming back, for better or worse.)

I have no idea if director Janus Metz Pedersen is a huge fan of Björn Borg (played here by Sverrir Gudnason, who really does look just like Borg), but after watching this film, I’d bet a lot of money he is. Borg/McEnroe is a love letter to Borg – portrayed here as an almost saintly perfectionist who was built from a young age to be the perfect tennis player. He’s almost like a nice Drago from Rocky IV. The film uses the 1980 Wimbledon Championships to frame a picture of both Borg and McEnroe and the contrast between their styles to shed light on their personalities — all leading up to the depiction of a match often cited as the greatest ever played.

Unfortunately, the material is depicted in the most highly dramatic way a movie about a tennis match could possibly be portrayed. Honestly, I’m a little baffled by this choice – at times I had to remind myself that this movie was about the 1980 Wimbledon finals and not, I don’t know, Sophie’s Choice. (That’s not a great example, but it’s all I can think of right now and you get the idea.) Exacerbating this is the constant flashbacks to both men’s childhoods: Borg, always under the stressful eye of his coach (Stellan Skarsgård); McEnroe, being told by his mother that getting the best grade in his class on a geography test wasn’t good enough. No offense to either Björn Borg or John McEnroe, but I don’t care about either of their childhoods. I just want to seem them hit some tennis balls at each other.

The first sight of Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe is preposterous. That’s not LaBeouf’s fault: any time a famous person plays another famous person it looks ridiculous at first. LaBeouf doesn’t look anything like McEnroe. Shia LaBeouf looks like Shia LaBeouf. But LaBeouf makes a good decision by not trying to be McEnroe or do a voice or anything like that. LaBeouf just kind of creates his own interpretation of McEnroe and, crazily enough, it works. Shia LaBeouf is pretty great as McEnroe and I found his performance the most compelling aspect of the movie (even though the movie desperately wants you to care more about Borg — hold that thought).

And the fact it’s LaBeouf playing this part is inherently interesting. He’s an actor who obviously has his own demons, playing a tennis star most known for his anger on the court. But with McEnroe, it was almost a strangely controlled anger (well, mostly) – that was just his game. With LaBeouf, who knows where this is headed? There’s part of me who hopes playing this part was in some way therapeutic, or insightful, but who really knows?

The final match, when we get there, is spectacular. It feels like a real tennis match and the stakes seem high for both Borg and McEnroe. Even though I have a lot of problems with the movie up to this point, the showdown between these two is arguably worth the price of admission alone, especially if you’re not totally familiar with how this match played out. It’s a well crafted experience.

But the biggest problem is this is a movie that doesn’t quite realize that McEnroe is the star. When LaBeouf is on-screen as McEnroe, the movie works. But the film desperately wants you to love Björn Borg. “Hey, don’t be distracted by the interesting fellow yelling about a missed call, please pay attention to Björn Borg who may be the greatest player to ever live.” And that’s the thing: Borg may be the best, but he’s not the most interesting. John McEnroe is interesting, but the film wants you to love Borg instead – even trying to make the case that McEnroe became a better player because of Borg’s example. Maybe that’s true, but it’s too bad Borg/McEnroe didn’t have a little more fun along the way. Because it sure looked like John McEnroe was having fun.

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