"Challengers" exhilarates as a glossy, stylish, sensual tennis triangle

Challengers (2024)

Hearts and a lot of tennis rackets get destroyed in Luca Guadagnino’s "Challengers." Whether it’s about an Italian summer romance, a witchy dance company in Germany, or two on-the-road cannibals in love, Guadagnino’s films have always captured a sensuality that can be felt and makes one feel alive. Now, for his most mainstream film set in the elite world of pro tennis, it’s an enticing, sensuously sweaty, and stylistically showy drama for grown-ups. It may be about a love triangle, but the real love is for tennis.

"Challengers" tracks the history between two best friends and doubles partner, WASPy Art Donaldson (Mike Faust) and brashly charming Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), and driven tennis phenom Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). At just 18, Tashi had the world at her feet, and she turned the heads of both Art and Patrick. A late-night encounter in the boys’ hotel room would change everything, even though she jokes that she doesn’t want to be a home-wrecker. While studying at Stanford, Tashi’s career came to a standstill with a severe knee injury (her “only skill in life was hitting a ball with a racket”). While Tashi was dating Patrick at the time, Art was actually there for her during her recovery. Now, in the film’s “present”—2019 in New Rochelle, New York—she is the wife, coach, and manager to Art, a Grand Slam champion, living in hotels with their daughter. Scheduled to play in a low-stakes qualifying Challenger tournament to get his game right ahead of the U.S. Open, Art finds himself competing against former best friend Patrick, who’s struggling as a tennis player and living out of his car. They all need each other, or maybe Tashi doesn’t need either man.

The script by first-time writer Justin Kuritzkes (husband to Past Lives writer-director Celine Song) is bitingly smart, playful, and surprisingly funny. The way in which Kuritzkes weaves this deceptively straightforward story of complicated sexual entanglements is with a non-linear structure. It isn’t hard to figure out where we are in time, but the device makes things needlessly complicated, volleying thirteen years earlier and then some. Without any greater insight made from different character perspectives, the purpose of the time-jumping beyond the past informing the present seems far less clear. 

Already a household name beyond her Disney Kid roots, Zendaya confirms her multifaceted talent with her commanding work as the unapologetic Tashi Duncan. An absolute force, she’s riveting to watch in every frame with a cool, calculating demeanor and just a few flashes of warmth when she puts her daughter to bed or needs to get what she wants. As it goes, Tashi remains the most fascinating character of the trio, puppeteering these two men at different points in her life and not wanting the world to forget her or paint her as just Art’s wife and coach. Read the full review at GuyAtTheMovies.com

Grade: B +

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released "Challengers" (131 min.) in theaters on April 26, 2024. 


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