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tiff 2017

Actors Shia LaBeouf as tennis great John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason playing Sweden's Bjorn Borg are in a scene from the movie Borg/McEnroe.Courtesy of TIFF/The Canadian Press

It has become something of an inside joke that the Toronto International Film Festival, without fail, opens every year with an irredeemable garbage movie, the hype of which is exhausted by TIFF – and which, shortly after, recedes into history, never to be thought of again.

(Indeed, the only time anyone talks about The Judge or The Fifth Estate or the Darwin biopic Creation is when they're rattling off a list of forgettable TIFF opening night movies.)

Borg/McEnroe, this year's sacrificial lamb, is no exception. In this story of the rivalry between Swedish tennis prodigy Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and spitting, swearing American bad boy John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), there are moment of real film-making, like a shot of Borg precariously balanced on the railing of a Moroccan hotel pivoting toward the abyss, and a fine performance by LaBeouf (albeit one that is largely diminished by the suffocating focus on Borg). Such grace notes are not, however, enough to redeem the film, which is by-and-large, garbage.

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It is, however, useful garbage. But not in underscoring the crisis facing TIFF's legitimacy when its biggest ticket movie is junk. Because, come on, who cares, honestly? No, it's instructive in how it embodies everything that is grating about the culture of tennis appreciation. It is worth clarifying, perhaps, that I do not follow tennis, or particularly care about it. I have, however, come across my share of tennis writing, a genre so stuffed by stultifying cliché that it has basically become the new baseball writing, which was itself the new boxing writing.

You know the style: rhapsodic essays exulting the grace of the human form operating within a prescribed geometry. Borg/McEnroe is basically this kind of tennis writing as a feature film. It opens with the ultimate film-making hack gesture, a quote that essentially sums up its own themes, courtesy of tennis player Andre Agassi. It reads: "It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature."

It's those three words, "life in miniature," that aspire to profundity but end up sounding stupid. The same can be said of baseball, of boxing, of a chess game, or of the movies themselves. (Friday night, at the premiere of The Death of Stalin, Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director referred the auteur-driven Platform section as a microcosm of TIFF itself; it's a claim which precludes the macrocosm of the festival's celeb and awards-baiting studio trash.) Deliberately described, anything can be positioned as a microcosm of life itself. The problem with this is that it feels entirely backward. Such thinking doesn't actually see the whole of life reflected in a sport, or a game, or a single point. Rather, it aggrandized the sport/game/point to stand in for life, confusing its rules and themes for those of existence itself. It confuses the map – or the court – for the territory.

In this respect, Borg/McEnroe is especially egregious and insufferable. Director Janus Metz reduces his principals to archetypes. Borg is the icy, restrained, machine-like gentleman. McEnroe is the erratic ugly American. This is a trick of sports journalism, which invests a given match with near-mythic consequence. It's the sort of thing one might reasonably expect a film to investigate instead of simply replicate. Borg McEnroe sets up its stakes like it's Rocky IV except, instead of being silly and fun in its cartoonish geopolitical pugilism, it's self-serious and dull. (Also, instead of being a gripping come-from-behind story, it's essentially an over-dog narrative because – spoiler alert – reigning champ Borg wins.) Metz attempts to fudge the fact that tennis is, for the most part, boring to watch by erratically crosscutting and overlaying his images with graphics and colour commentary. Whatever inherent grace tennis possesses is either being eviscerated, or was otherwise never there to begin with.

It's glaringly obvious why such a movie would appeal to TIFF brass an opener. It feels good to be told that your life is as exciting and thematically rich as a showdown between two of the most famous athletes ever. It's reassuring and deluding to buy into the fantasy that every schmo, somehow, is just like McEnroe or Borg. If tennis is life in miniature, then it follows that life is as exciting as top-tier pro tennis, only blown up. But apart from enjoying swearing, I'd wager I'm nothing like McEnroe. And nothing like Borg. And neither are you.

There's another big-ticket tennis movie playing at TIFF this year: Battle of the Sexes, which casts Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, who faced-off in a highly-publicized 1973 match. I don't know if it'll break that other cinematic curse – which warns that there's never been a good movie about tennis – but at least it looks funny and dumb. Which is, you know, like life. Life is funny.