BORG VS. McENROE – movie review

BORG vs. McEnroe

Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Janus Metz
Screenwriter: Ronnie Sandahl
Cast: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard, Tuva Novotny, Björn Granath, David Bamber
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 4/3/18
Opens: April 13, 2018

Borg vs McEnroe

Concussions result from body contact in boxing and football. Those who abhor such contact sports and who don’t care to know the difference between and a field goal and a first down may make an exception for tennis. The fans in the stands at Wimbledon are as genteel as the audience at the Pope’s coronation, and would be aghast watching youtube features of football fans breaking heads at the Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta. Tennis, like polo, is the sport of gentlemen, and as an activity for individuals, whether a player wins or loses he has only himself to blame. With fancy scores that baffle Americans who prefer their sports nice and simple, tennis is a game that only sometimes raises tension in the stands and high emotions in the players. Janus Metz, who directs “Borg vs. McEnroe” from a screenplay by Ronnie Sandahl will likely succeed admirably in getting hearts pounding given the excitement that took place on a single day in 1980 as two equally adept players struggle down to the wire in a match with several overtimes. The winner can claim the title of numero uno while the loser must settle for number two. Given the personality of John McEnroe who was out to topple Björn Borg from his place as the world’s greatest player, we can easily see that the American considered his match at Wimbledon against the reigning champ as a do-or-die fight. For Borg, this was his match to lose. The Swedish sportsman was the favorite even of Americans, given our disgust with the antics of McEnroe, a childish man given over to tantrums against the umpires and line officials, a temperament more suited to throwing opponents out of the ring in professional wrestling than of swinging the catgut in his racquet.

Interestingly the part of McEnroe is played by Shia La Boeuf, not exactly unknown to police. Arrested for yelling at New York’s Studio 54 on July 20, 2014 and refusing to leave the theater, then again charged on July 8, 2017 with public drunkenness, La Boeuf—who got his French name from his Cajun father—is perfectly type-cast as the villain. In fact he was bestowed by the sports announcements as the SuperBrat while his Stockholm-born opponent was nicknamed IceBorg.

As we see from their behavior on the grass court at Wimbledon, London, Borg, playing as a 25-year-old by Sverrir Gudnason, is considered a gentleman. In truth he shares a temperament with his opponent, the difference between that he represses his emotions and is torn by self-doubt. He is encouraged by his coach, Lennart Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), to think “one point at a time.” By focusing all his fears and doubts within, Borg would seem to have the temperament for a winner.

With regular flashbacks to Borg’s childhood days (played by Leo Borg, who is the real-life son of the champ , then by Marcus Mossberg), the young Borg practices frequently by hitting the ball against a wall. His neuroses show up later. When the press asks the mature Borg to hit the ball against the same wall, he refuses because he does not remember which specific wall he had used years earlier.

The private moments are nothing special. The audience does well to wait for real melodrama when scenes from the big Wimbledon match come, and since you don’t know who will win (though fans familiar with the game already know and critics may reveal spoilers), you will root for your man. Chances are you’ll pick the Swede, but for me as an American who rooted for my home team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, simply because of the hometown location of Ebbets Field, I put my money on McEnroe. The action shots should have concentrated more on showing the whole court where body doubles filled in for the actors. Who cares what each player looks like in close-up when you all you see in those moments is the smack of the ball on the racquet?

The rivalry does not have the comic theme we enjoyed when watching Steve Carell and Emma Stone performing in the roles of Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes,” but the intensity of the McEnroe-Boggs game helps to make up for that.

Unrated. 107 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B+
Technical – B-
Overall – B

BATTLE OF THE SEXES – movie review


    Fox Searchlight Pictures
    Director:  Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton
    Written by: Simon Beaufoy
    Cast:  Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrew Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue
    Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 11/13/17
    Opens: September 29, 2017
    Battle of the Sexes Movie Poster
    Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s movie “Battle of the Sexes” has been called a crowd-pleaser everywhere, because it’s the kind of movie with a finale that would viewers to their feet.  In another words, it’s not a downer, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  A crowd-pleaser tends to move at a rapid pace and has great appeal to popular, i.e. massive, tastes, and the people in the film that you’re rooting for will, despite initial setbacks, come out as winners.  Well, then, whether “Battle of the Sexes” is such a movie depends on whom you support.  Using tennis as a metaphor for the conflict between feminism and male chauvinism, wouldn’t those who want the male player to win feel disappointed at the conclusion?

    Example: We all know by now that Billy Jean King defeated her challenger, Bobby Riggs, in a match held not at Forest Hills, which traditionally gets an audience elite enough to applaud politely rather than yell as though at Churchill Downs. This is said to be a victory for feminism and against show-offs such as Riggs and his many supporters.  But it is really a great victory?  Riggs was 55 years old and King was 29.  The big surprise is that previous to the 1973 match, Bobby Riggs defeated the woman who was the number one world champion, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee).  Doesn’t this in itself attest to the athletic superiority of men, given the age difference here?

    In the movie directed by the duo who gave us “Little Mary Sunshine”—featuring women who want to get their young daughters into a beauty competition—Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the kind of hustler and self-described male chauvinist pig who want to prove that since women cannot beat men in athletics, the sport of tennis is justified in paying male players eight times more than women.  This concept is repudiated by  Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) and publicized by her business partner Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the latter invading a male club to give a piece of her mind to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), a former tennis champ now a big shot in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.

    There’s more involved than most of us had seen in 1973 in that Billie Jean, married to hunky Larry King (Austin Stowell),  is a closet lesbian who during the course of this film begins an affair with a hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  During the concluding moments of the movie, for those who did not yet absorb the point, she hugs the league’s fashion designer, Ted (Alan Cumming), who notes that we’ll all be better off if we can be our true selves, undaunted by public censure of Neanderthals.

    Steve Carell is in his métier as loudmouth who thinks that tennis has the same USA-USA-USA rah-rah-ism as so-called professional wrestling and college football.  This is Emma Stone’s movie, though. She comes across as a woman ahead of her time, at first by refusing to accept the challenge of her male counterpart, but then realizing that womankind would advance the cause by taking him on.

    So…therein lies the crowd pleaser, presumably cheered unanimously by women (but not apparently by the hotties who wear costumes touting their male hero, but again: if women are the equals of men in athletics, could Ms. King defeat a man her own age?  Have the female winners of the annual New York marathon ever equaled the time clocked in by the male victors?  And why do we have separate divisions for women’s basketball rather than allow them to compete for places with the men in the pro leagues?

    These are but intellectual arguments that do nothing to downgrade the fun of “Battle of the Sexes,” pitting two A-list actors into a delightful grudge match.  The movie, to coin a term in tennis scoring, is “Love Love.”

    Rated PG-13.  121 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Story – B+
    Acting – A-
    Technical – A-
    Overall – B+