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TIFF 2017: Shia LaBeouf’s portrayal of John McEnroe likely didn’t take much acting

When John McEnroe heard that someone was making a movie of his life without asking, he was not pleased.

"I don't know how you can do it without ever meeting me," he said last year.

McEnroe had only one kind thing to say about the process – that he approved the casting of Shia LaBeouf to play him.

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"Supposedly, he's crazy," McEnroe said. "So maybe that works."

It does. Sort of.

Read more: The Globe's guide to TIFF 2017 movies

There's never been a good movie made about tennis. Borg/McEnroe, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, doesn't change that. It plays like a 100-minute-long Volvo commercial about people having feelings while stringing racquets.

But LaBeouf gets at McEnroe's angry, coiled persona. One gets the feeling it didn't involve much acting on his part.

Ten years ago, when he starred in the first Transformers film, you'd have bet good money that LaBeouf would soon be the biggest thing in Hollywood. He had the beaten-up good looks and the on-cue intensity.

Then he got weird. Not just L.A. weird, but seriously weird. A series of bizarre art happenings and public meltdowns culminated in July with an arrest for public drunkenness and a cringe-inducing rant recorded inside a police cruiser.

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It was recently announced that LaBeouf's character will be cut from the next Indiana Jones instalment. He has just one movie on the go – the not-promisingly titled The Peanut Butter Falcon.

It doesn't feel like LaBeouf's career is in a good place. You can tell that by looking at him.

He was not made available to the media for any one-on-one interviews here. They rolled him out just the once on Thursday, tucked in amidst his co-stars and director, for a choreographed interview.

He showed up in high-waisted jogging pants and a patchwork satin jacket that made him look like an extra from The Karate Kid. He's still only 31, but all the youth has drained from him. He has the wan face of a man who has lived hard. He spent most of Thursday's encounter fiddling with a wedding band and staring blankly into the middle distance while others talked.

The question he probably feared – "What happened to you?" – never came. Instead, people tried to go at him sideways by getting him to speculate on McEnroe's (read: his own) character.

LaBeouf kept banging on about "the cathartic feeling" of playing McEnroe. He noted that, in his prime, people thought of the tennis legend as a "clown" and a "screaming shrew." He held off saying more about why he chose the role because "I could, but I'd put my foot in my mouth."

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Apropos of nothing, co-star Stellan Skarsgard said, "There's a lot of really, really good actors who are really, really stupid."

LaBeouf laughed out loud, surprising everyone, including himself.

Borg/McEnroe is a Swedish movie aimed at a Swedish audience. It really ought to be entitled Borg.

The Swedish legend eventually put his arms around the film.

McEnroe never did buy in, and it's not hard to guess why. Few athletes have ever had such a profound self-belief. He's not going to get on board with something that casts him in the supporting role.

That's where LaBeouf's at now, if unwillingly. He said he'd watched Amadeus repeatedly in order to prepare for the role, since McEnroe so resembled Mozart. He has that wrong – McEnroe is the Salieri of this film. He's the backup.

LaBeouf is not quite there yet. He is still an attraction, but the work is dwindling. If there's a second act coming, it needs to come soon. A Scando-arthouse effort set in the locker rooms at Wimbledon is probably not going to do the trick.

If that worries him, he's not saying. Instead, his focus was on the man he's just played, and how he navigated his own bad reputation.

"He turned into a very sweet man," LaBeouf said of McEnroe (read: himself). "I really like what he has become in the public."

Piers Handling says screening movies alongside filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola is a perk of being TIFF’s director. Festival creative director Cameron Bailey adds filmmakers can be sensitive to his reactions at screenings. The Canadian Press
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