'Challengers' - pulpy tennis film courts melodrama

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Sunday April 28, 2024
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Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Conner in 'Challengers' (photo: MGM)
Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Conner in 'Challengers' (photo: MGM)

In what has become known as his Desire Trilogy —"I Am Love," "A Bigger Splash," and "Call Me By Your Name"— gay Italian film director Luca Guadagnino has focused on passion as an all-consuming force, a theme he continues in his new movie, "Challengers," which explores a love triangle dissected through a crucial tennis match. Tennis here isn't a metaphor for sex and power but rather sex and power are metaphors for tennis. And in both "matches," competing to be on top, to win, is everything. Their intensity, in how they play tennis, acts as an aphrodisiac in their personal desires.

"Challengers" moves from 2006 to 2019. Two eighteen-year-old best friends, Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor, "The Crown," "God's Country") and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, "West Side Story"), ace players/roommates (nicknamed Fire and Ice) at a tennis academy boarding school, are competing when they watch Tashi Duncan (Zendaya, "Dune," "Euphoria") in action, dazzled by her artistry as a tennis prodigy (ala Serena Williams) as well as her beauty. Both become obsessed with her, each trying to gain her affections.

Mike Faist and Zendaya in 'Challengers' (photo: MGM)  

Love third-y
She visits their motel room, making out with both men simultaneously to the point when Patrick and Art start kissing and making out with each other, with Tashi watching gleefully in full control mode. She makes them aware of emotions and an attraction they either never noticed or acknowledged. As she leaves, she declares whichever guy wins tomorrow's game against each other will get her phone number. Great tennis becomes the equivalent of great sex.

Tashi starts dating Patrick, but they split. She pursues Art, years later marrying him, and they have a daughter. She attends Stanford but has a devastating knee injury that ends her career as a tennis player. Meanwhile, Art becomes a star, winning everything except the U.S. Open, with Tashi as his manager.

By 2019, with Art in a losing slump partially related to a shoulder injury, in his mid-30s he's lost his desire to compete and is thinking about retirement, much to Tashi's consternation. By entering Art into a low-level championship match in New Rochelle, she hopes it will inspire him to regain his confidence.

But Patrick has entered the tournament and will face Art as a competitor. After a decade of partying, he's also, despite his self-confidence, in a downward spiral, sleeping in his car. His reappearance shakes Art, but excites Tashi. What will happen professionally and in their sexual rivalry may depend on the winner of that final game, with victory the ultimate bearer of ecstasy.

Court and sparks
The film itself and its hype-marketing makes you think you will be viewing a steamy sex romp, but aside from some locker room nudity, the sex is more implied than seen. The chemistry between Tashi and Art seems almost nonexistent and while hotter with Patrick, there aren't many fireworks being set off there either.

The real sparks fly in the homoerotic antics between Patrick (more open and nonthreatened by his possible bisexuality) and Art. In addition to their raunchy French kissing, there's a steam room sauna scene with a flirty drop of a towel, not to mention erotic churro-eating in another episode, suggesting swinging in all senses of the word. However, that's as far as it goes, with Patrick and Art never actually going to bed with each other.

None of the characters are likeable. Tashi is cold-blooded and manipulative. Patrick is a conniving narcissist and Art is boring and mischievously calculating. Also, we simply don't get to know them outside of a tennis court or the reasons behind some of their actions. Why did Patrick and Tashi stop dating? When and why did Art and Patrick have a falling-out? Which guy does Tashi really prefer and does she love Art or just the idea of winning?

The early history between the three characters is told via flashbacks, which are presented at a dizzying speed probably meant to mimic the quick volleying of a tennis ball (and in the final match, the camera follows the ball's path, almost becoming a character in its own right).

Mike Faist and Josh O'Conner in 'Challengers' (photo: MGM)  

Time warp
There are so many time jumps (and jumps within jumps) and parallel timelines occurring — and because the same actors are in these scenes and don't look that different in each era — it becomes confusing, so it's hard to place which chronology or where one is in the story.

The three actors look fabulous and titillating with the camera following their sculptured physiques in motion, especially as they play tennis which has an inherent eroticism to it.

Honestly, I've never been that enchanted previously with Zendaya (she's also a producer) but she skillfully conveys the formidability and determination of Tashi while hinting at her fragility.

As Art, Faist has the hardest task because the character is vague and repressed, tricky to convey without appearing dull, yet he portrays well his vulnerability and indecisiveness. It can be argued his best scenes are with O'Connor rather than with Zendaya.

O'Connor conveys smirky swagger as well as a dangerous instability. You're never sure how Patrick will respond or act in a given situation. He's a screwed-up, sultry antihero jerk who's aware and comfortable with his sexual predilections. O'Connor brilliantly is both off-putting and charming, so he walks away with this picture.

Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are to be congratulated for the breakneck, hyperkinetic movement and split-second editing throughout the film, so even at a too-long 131 minutes, the viewer is never bored. Also, in that final match the camera is placed under the court's surface so it's as if we're following the POV of the tennis ball as it volleys viciously between Patrick and Art.

This motion creates an aura of suspense with the hitting sound of the ball resembling a gunshot (aided by Reznor's and Ross's pounding techno score). You don't have to be a tennis fan to appreciate the movie, but addicts of the game will be enthralled.

With its numerous flaws, the film has its exhilarating moments and has the earmarks of a crowd-pleaser, though its emotional brutality and ambiguous ending will be debated by audiences. The payoff doesn't quite match the teasing build-up.

Still, this pulpy sports melodrama never pretends to be more than it is, which is entertaining and cunningly pleasing. If you don't expect anything challenging from "Challengers," you will probably enjoy the film, seduced by its exciting, sexy competitive hijinks on the court and behind closed doors.

'Challengers' currently screens at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema and AMC Kabuki 8. www.mgm.com

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