A young blonde man sits across a table from a young girl with long dark hair. Over the table of hard boiled eggs and Gatorade, she points a fork while in conversation with the young man.

Film Review: Challengers

Film Reviews

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Pascal Pictures
In Theaters: 04.26

I’m far from a sports person, though as a writer, I find them to be a useful source for metaphors, usually about life and overcoming struggles. Clearly, so does Luca Guadagnino, as we see with Challengers, which uses competitive tennis as a compelling, if at times heavy handed, metaphor for relationship dynamics, desire and sexual politics.

Tashi Duncan (Zendaya, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dune) is a retired tennis phenom who is now a determined coach known for her dominating presence both on and off the court. Tashi’s husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, West Side Story), a championship player, seems to have lost both his edge and his love of the game. Tashi hopes to help Art get his groove back by having him compete. However, this plan takes an unexpected turn when Art must compete against his fallen-from-grace former best friend, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, God’s Own Country, The Crown) who also happens to be Tashi’s ex-boyfriend. The story of the complicated past between these three plays out in flashbacks as the tense tennis match progresses, as the alternately playful and fierce back and forth of the games of life, love and loyalty bring into into question what it really means to win.

Challengers is easily the most mainstream film that Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, Bones and All) has made to date, and it showcases many of his greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses as a filmmaker. It’s beautifully shot and brimming over with style, though sometimes the latter element is to the film’s detriment. While the tennis matches are skillfully and creatively staged with a lot of brilliantly innovative camera work, including a dazzling shot following the ball itself back and forth through the air, there’s a maddening over dependence on slow motion throughout the film, whether it’s an endless parade of lingering shots of beads of sweat dripping down off of the players or pointless sequences of characters simply walking from room to room. This tedious and rather pedestrian indulgence makes the movie run too long by a full 15 to 20 minutes, and I found myself checking my watch more times during than Killers of the Flower Moon, Oppenheimer and Dune combined. The thumping, abrasive score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, The Power of the Dog) is so self consciously cool that it becomes ridiculous , and it’s hard to be particularly excited by one overpowering techno theme played approximately 800 times with no discernible changes regardless of the situation. It’s not underscoring, it’s overscoring, and love it or hate it, you have to lay this choice firmly on Guadagnino. The character relationships at the heart of the film and are much more nuanced, and it’s most successful when focusing on that dynamic.  Art and Patrick both fall hard for Tashi, and she finds herself coming between them, describing herself as a “homewrecker.” Tashi professes to loathe the idea of causing friction between them, but finds herself not only drawn to both of them but intrigued and excited by the power that she has over them. The screenplay by playwright and novelist Justin Kuritzkes (The Sensuality Party) is sly, and full of pithy dialogue exchanges, though the tendency to clumsily telegraph big moments betrays his background in the often too literal and spoon-fed storytelling style of the stage.

Zendaya is obviously the big draw here, and she exudes intelligence, power and sexuality in the role of Tashi. Zendaya’s performance is quite strong, though I find her to be much more convincing in the flashback sequences as the college age version of the character. Tashi’s self absorption and obsession with winning could have made her far more off putting if played by a lesser actress, and Zendaya’s undeniable appeal is critical to making the film work. Faist is terrific as Art, by far the most likable and interesting of the three characters, and his sincerity and authenticity kept me engaged by making me care about Art, even when I found myself growing apathetic toward the overall story. O’Connor is quite impressive as Patrick, a charmingly roguish and almost unbearably arrogant man child who embodies the stereotypical strutting jock who draws people to him like a magnet despite few redeemable qualities. O’Connor gives him charisma, though it’s largely up to the other two actors make us care about him simply because they do. 

Challengers is smarter than average as a piece of fluff entertainment, though it’s almost insultingly predictable and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, falling short when measured by  loftier artistic standards. It could have benefited greatly from judicious editing and a greater emphasis on subtlety. It scores enough points to be called a winner, and it’s got style to spare, but it lacks the heart of a true champion. –Patrick Gibbs

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