Casting Shia LaBeouf as tennis bad boy John McEnroe is something of a self-reflexive gesture: Here are two men whose erratic, volatile public personae have eclipsed their respective talents, and whose most outrageous behavior represents either severe psychic breaks or obnoxious performative affectations.
LaBeouf is actually the best thing about the docudrama Borg vs. McEnroe, an unrelentingly earnest depiction of the manufactured rivalry that developed between McEnroe and Swedish tennis pro Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason). It's 1980, and heading into the Wimbledon Championships, Borg is the world's top-ranked player; McEnroe is right on his heels.
The movie spends a lot of time establishing the yin-yang temperaments of its titular figures. Borg is zen, stoic, made brittle by the scrutiny of celebrity. And McEnroe is, of course, the sport's enfant terrible, his veins throbbing and spittle flying as he hurls expletives at referees.
Ah, but perhaps they're not so different. In a flashback, we see Borg as the impetuous adolescent whose rough edges are smoothed out by a stern coach (Stellan Skarsgård), and McEnroe as the meek child whose insecurities were stoked by his ever-disapproving father. These parallels no doubt existed in real life, but here they're handled with all the delicacy of a tennis ball smashing into your forehead.
And then we get to the big match of the title, which director Janus Metz has assembled as a flurry of whip pans, smash zooms, voiceover and on-screen graphics. It's visually interesting, but the actual drama of the game gets lost in the whiz-bang of the editing.
Borg vs. McEnroe debuted at festivals last year alongside the Emma Stone-Steve Carell vehicle Battle of the Sexes, and while both movies dramatize storied tennis matches, their approaches are diametrically opposed. Battle was about the love of the game, about great athletes feeding off their animalistic desire for competition. This one treats that desire as an almost deranged pathology, and it's so portentous and self-serious that you get the impression neither Borg nor McEnroe even enjoyed playing tennis.