The Toronto International Film Festival has always been known as much for its quantity as its quality. Hundreds of movies from around the world screen here every September, crammed tight like sardines into an 11-day schedule, some yanked from the major fests that fall before it on the calendar. But in 2017, TIFF seems to have taken a cue from one of its special presentations, Alexander Payne’s incredible-shrinking-man comedy Downsizing. Which is to say that, in more ways than one, North America’s biggest film festival got smaller this year. There are fewer movies (320, down from 400 last year), fewer venues to see those movies at (neither the Isabel Bader Theatre nor the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema host the festival anymore), and fewer programs (yours truly mourns the death of Vanguard, which launched such recent A.V. Club favorites as The Duke Of Burgundy, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and Colossal). The overall goal seems to be a more manageable festival experience for all. Call it addition by subtraction.
Of course, for critics and journalists, covering TIFF comprehensively is still a pipe dream. The organizers could cut the lineup in half and it would still be impossible to see everything. The A.V. Club certainly won’t be covering it all, but we’ll strive, as always, to provide reactions to the movies that matter, from the big award-season hopefuls to the art-house gems that put the international into this international festival. For the fourth year in a row, I’ve decamped with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky to Canada, where we’ve taken up temporary residence in a cozy Airbnb conveniently located just down the street from the Scotiabank Theatre, where most of the press and industry screenings are held. Our general routine hasn’t changed much, but our plan of attack has: Instead of the daily roundups we’re written in previous years, we’ll be knocking out shorter but more frequent dispatches, with quick thoughts on individual films we’ve just watched and the occasional pairing of titles. They’ll run periodically from now until next Thursday.
One thing that apparently hasn’t changed at TIFF is the festival’s strange commitment to programming a total mediocrity as its opening-night selection. In the grand tradition of Demolition, The Magnificent Seven, and The Judge comes Borg/McEnroe (Grade: C), an overwrought sports drama about the apparently famous 1980 Wimbledon match between two pros with very different public personalities. On one side of the net is Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), Swedish world No. 1 superstar, regarded not just as one of the best players in the world but also a “gentleman” of the sport, due to his unflappability on and off the court. On the other side is his fiercest competition, brash New Yorker John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf), widely detested for his habit of constantly losing his temper and cursing at spectators during matches. In both style of play and temperament, they were near opposites, which only fueled the media frenzy around their impending showdown.
This is actually one of two films playing at TIFF this year about a real-life tennis rivalry; Battle Of The Sexes, which screens in a few days, tackles the titular grudge match between champ Billie Jean King and retired player Bobby Riggs, who organized the whole event as his way of proving to the world that women didn’t belong in the sport. Borg/McEnroe doesn’t possess that kind of dramatic hook—there’s nothing ideologically at stake, unless one fervently believes that potty-mouths have no place in tennis—so the film is forced to focus more on the players themselves. Screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl’s working theory is (get this) that the two were more alike than different: Laborious origin-story flashbacks to Borg’s youth as a hotheaded prodigy indicate that his famous composure was something he carefully cultivated over time (“Never show another emotion again,” his trainer, played by Stellan Skarsgård, somewhat unbelievably tells him), while scenes behind closed doors demonstrate how McEnroe’s short fuse was more strategy than impulse. But this two-sides-of-the-same-coin dichotomy is about as deep as the psychology runs.
Assumedly aware that he’s making a movie about one of the less inherently cinematic of sporting events, director Janus Metz compensates with a lot of bombastic, jittery style, amplifying the crunch of flashbulbs to a deafening roar, restlessly skittering his camera around, generally taking notes from Ron Howard’s Rush playbook. But there’s not a lot of suspense about where the movie might go, even for the uninitiated, because the out-of-order opening scene blatantly establishes that Wimbledon will come down to these two contenders (lest one fear they have to pay any attention to any of the matches leading up to the finals). This flash-forward opening also labors hard to melodramatically inflate the importance of both the game and this individual rivalry; for as much as Borg/McEnroe makes tennis players look like neurotic, joyless psychos, it also comes close to depicting them as demigods on the court. It’s a sports movie for masochistic, vainglorious athletes. For the rest of us, the film’s minor pleasures lie almost exclusively in LaBeouf’s willingness to lean into his own bad reputation. Like Lars Von Trier and Andrea Arnold before him, Metz harnesses Shia’s assholery instead of trying to disguise it.