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Challengers

Luca Guadagnino directs “Challengers,” a time-shifting drama about a love triangle between tennis pros, as if he’s a top-seeded player so ruthlessly focused on winning Wimbledon that he’d run over his grandmother if she got between him and the stadium. Every shot is a serve, every montage a volley. There’s even part of one match done from the point-of-view of a ball being smacked to-and-fro at high speed. It’s extravagantly goofy. But it’s also hilarious and wonderful, because it’s an objective correlative for how far the film will go to entertain you. 

Zendaya stars as Tashi, a former teenage tennis pro in the mold of one of the Williams sisters whose career on the court is ended by an injury and pivots to being a manager. Her only client is her husband Art (Mike Faist, who played Riff in “West Side Story”). Art is a nice guy who’s been a dominant force in men’s tennis thanks in large part to Tashi’s guidance and loyalty. Art is having an existential crisis when the story begins. Tashi gets the bright idea of having him enter a low-level championship match in hopes that he’ll reconnect with the energy that fueled him when she met him. 

But there’s a secret agenda here, one whose motivations and machinations we’re never entirely privy to: one of the players expected to appear at the match is Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a scruffy hustler who used to be best friends with Art until Tashi came between them. Like, literally came between them: one of many dazzling non-tennis showpieces in “Challengers” is a lengthy flashback scene wherein Tashi visits the motel room that the two guys are sharing during a tournament, slinks onto the bed with them, and makes out with both men simultaneously, until the point where Art and Patrick, who are so close and physically comfortable with each other that they could be mistaken for lovers anyway, start making out with each other, and Tashi coolly withdraws from the tangle of bodies and watches what she’s delighted to realize is her own handiwork. 

What, exactly, drives Tashi? The movie lets us poke around the edges of her psychology but prevents us from getting enough of a glimpse at her emotional interior to draw solid inferences. What drives Patrick, who realizes early into the Art-finds-his-roots tournament that Tashi is there for him as well, and that there’s still powerful sexual energy between them, way more electric and obvious than what flows between Tashi and Art? We don’t quite know. Their connection is more feral than intellectual. What drives Art? Goodness, mostly. He’s a smart, decent guy. You instinctively understand that he’s quite aware there’s still some unspoken thing happening between Tashi and Patrick. But he has decided to be grateful to have been the official “winner” of this relationship tournament, and seems to believe that the best strategy is to let things play out while trusting in his wife’s love and loyalty. 

What a situation! The instability of it keeps “Challengers” on its toes even when it’s on the verge of getting tripped up by plot machinations and the past/present storytelling churn of Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay and Marco Costa’s editing. There’s a lively cinematic subgenre that deconstructs the rise and fall of a relationship by jumping around in time—two excellent examples are “Blue Valentine” and “Two for the Road”—and this movie carries on that tradition with panache, and adds many spectacularly blocked, framed, and edited scenes of athletic competition that, taken together, feel like a tennis fan’s answer to a boxing picture. (Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor's score is insistent and relentless and loud, the techno-inflected answer to a full studio orchestra score in an old Hollywood melodrama.)

Is "Challengers" too ambitious for its own good? Or too much? Or less than meets the eye, as the late, great Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris might have put it? Probably. It kinda gets sucked into the vortex of its own narrative and technical ambitions in the final stretch. And there might be a too many clever transitions from one time period to the other, sometimes at moments when what’s onscreen is so engrossing that you’d rather the film continue immersing itself rather than cutting away to chase some other thing. And the 1970s American New Wave “What just happened and what does it mean?” ending feels unearned. It’s not so much pretentious as out-of-nowhere and feels not-right for what preceded it. 

The pleasures of “Challengers” are visceral, intuitive, at times animalistic. Despite the intricate structure, there’s nothing about it that announces, “I am an art film, and I will take you into the hidden recesses of the human heart and mind and leave you there to ponder the complexities of what you’ve just seen.” The tone is more like those great entertainments that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from the 1940s, where every line seemed dirty because of how the actors said it. 

Which is to say that the film is more Hollywood than Cannes—and not only is that perfectly fine, it’s exciting. Commercial cinema is terrified of sex these days, and adult sexuality, and adulthood generally. Anything over a certain budget level seems to neuter itself by repeatedly worrying throughout the production process whether what’s happening on the screen might potentially cause even mild discomfort in a family with young children, or between an older parent and the adult child who lives with them and has to sit beside them on the couch while watching TV. It’s a shame how the phrase “adult movie” has become associated almost exclusively with erotica/pornography, because it also describes the kind of work that concerns itself with matters that children cannot understand because they’re children. 

All three lead actors carry themselves like movie stars. Guadagnino and his game-for-anything cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who shot two other Guadagnino films as well as several by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) shoot the performers as if they’re legends of both the court and the big screen that they're very lucky to have in the cast. It’s a treat to see three young, contemporary actors nailing the  understated flirty gravitas that the stars of films for grownups used to exhibit in earlier eras, but that almost nobody knows how to do at this comparatively sexless moment in 21st century cinema. 

Zendaya has that knowing, alpha-queen, insinuating blank-slate quality that emanated from Julia Roberts in many of her 1990s and early aughts roles. She carries herself like a young woman who has every right to be where she is. That feeling meshes perfectly with Tashi, who remains formidable even after a stroke of bad luck takes professional tennis away from her as a sport and leaves her as a business-and-media puppet master. Faist nails the difficult role of the nice guy who is strong and loyal but might not be tough enough to withstand the wringer that the other two characters seem like they’re about to put him through. O’Connor’s slightly-open-mouthed performance, dark-features, unshaven and sweaty presentation, and wrinkled and stained clothes turn him into the 21st century answer to a 1970s movie star like Elliott Gould or Donald Sutherland: somebody with a smirking countercultural edge. He's got a dangerously unstable yet attractive quality that's perfect for this film.

The perspective on the main characters is outside looking in. Even when the camerawork and editing dice up the story and rearrange meanings and facts, you’re never being allowed access to the main players’ minds or hearts. It’s not that kind of movie. You watch it like you watch the U.S. Open. Power dynamics are everything. Who’s up? Who’s down? Is there a potential for a comeback? It’s a great sports film because it shows you how what happens in the arena is a stylized and distilled mirror of what’s happening elsewhere in the players’ lives. There are several moments in the movie where one of the central trio faces another on the court and we draw in our breath because we know one of them has a secret advantage over the other—a trump card that they’ve been carrying around for a while, and are finally ready to play.

This movie doesn’t have a philosophical or understated moment anywhere in its running time, and seems not to care whether you think that’s a flaw, because it’s “in the zone” in the way that a professional athlete is. It doesn’t just want to entertain. It wants to win

Opens in theaters on April 26th.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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Film Credits

Challengers movie poster

Challengers (2024)

Rated R

131 minutes

Cast

Zendaya as Tashi Duncan

Mike Faist as Art Donaldson

Josh O'Connor as Patrick Zweig

Darnell Appling as Umpire (New Rochelle Final)

Bryan Doo as Art's Physiotherapist

Shane T Harris as Art's Security Guard

Nada Despotovich as Tashi's Mother

Director

Screenplay

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