‘Borg/McEnroe’ Toronto Review: Shia LaBeouf Tennis Movie Mixes Backhands With Psychoanalysis

TIFF’s opening-night movie sets out to encapsulate the troubled journeys of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe within one epic Wimbledon match

It’s safe to say that “Borg/McEnroe,” which opened the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night, makes its ambitions clear from the start. The film from director Janus Metz opens with a title-card quote from Andre Agassi (who otherwise has nothing to do with this particular tennis story) that concludes, “Every match is a life in miniature.”

Make that two lives in miniature, because “Borg/McEnroe” sets out to encapsulate the troubled journeys of tennis stars Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe within one epic match. That came in the 1980 Wimbledon final, when the emotionless Swede was going for a record fifth consecutive Wimbledon title and the brash American was trying to climb to No. 1.

The film does a respectable job of it, tying on-court demeanor to past traumas and building to a suitably dramatic ending. After a while, though, you start to feel sorry for poor tennis, forced to bear the burden of all that metaphor.

But this is not the only Toronto film that does so, because “Borg/McEnroe” is also part of an unusual TIFF synchronicity this year. The film about one celebrated tennis rivalry joins “Battle of the Sexes,” about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and “Love Means Zero,” a documentary about controversial tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, in a TIFF tennis triptych.

While much of the attention”Borg/McEnroe” has garnered has no doubt come from the prospect of celebrated hothead John McEnroe portrayed by celebrated hothead Shia LaBeouf, the argumentative New Yorker takes definite back seat in the film to his Nordic rival.

The film starts with Sverrir Gudnason’s Borg, on top of the world after his four consecutive Wimbledon titles but clearly troubled and lonely in his high-rise Monaco retreat. He’s besieged by fans, conflicted by fame and scared that if he doesn’t win again he’ll be remembered as a one-time loser, not a four-time winner.

McEnroe comes in later, a pugnacious competitor vilified in the New York Times as “the worst representative for American values since Al Capone” and obsessed with overtaking the man he says “isn’t human” after watching a Borg press conference.

It’s the emotionless Swede vs. the guy who’s all emotion – but one of the points of “Borg/McEnroe” is that this shorthand just isn’t true, that Borg was as fiery as McEnroe but had made a conscious decision to stifle his emotion in public.

The movie makes that point partly through copious flashbacks and partly through effectively nuanced performances by Sverrir Gudnason and LaBeouf (though the latter brings his own persona with him, which hampers our ability to see him as McEnroe). But it also overplays its hand by being a little too obvious with the armchair psychoanalysis.

And in the home stretch, when we get close to the Wimbledon final, Metz revs up a game of “who can be more tortured and carry more baggage onto Centre Court?” In this corner, McEnroe explodes at the press; over there, Borg writhes on the shower floor from the pressure.

And then McEnroe says, “Everything I’ve ever done has led up to this match,” and we’re in for five epic sets. McEnroe glowers and smashes. Borg sweats and lunges. McEnroe glowers some more. (LaBeouf, it must be said, is an accomplished glowerer.)

The backhands and ground strokes get bigger, the music gets more pretentious, an international cadre of reporters spells things out for us (“And now it’s all about heart!”) and well, it’s just a bit much.

Borg, for the record, attended a Swedish screening last week and approved, according to Metz. McEnroe has yet to see it.