Thursday, May 23, 2024

“CHALLENGERS”

THE STORY – Tashi, a tennis player turned coach, has transformed her husband from a mediocre player into a world-famous grand slam champion. To jolt him out of his recent losing streak, she makes him play a challenger event — close to the lowest level of tournament on the pro tour. Tensions soon run high when he finds himself standing across the net from the once-promising, now burnt-out Patrick, his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend.

THE CAST – Zendaya, Josh O’Connor & Mike Faist

THE TEAM – Luca Guadagnino (Director) & Justin Kuritzkes (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 131 Minutes


“Challengers” begins with sweating and screaming. Even before the studio logo appears, three faces fill the screen: Two very sweaty male tennis players and one very invested female onlooker. The tennis players are Arthur Donaldson (Mike Faist), a top pro slumming it at a low-level competition after a series of humiliating losses, and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), a down-on-his-luck lower-level pro who considered throwing his first-round tournament matches so that he could get the small amount of guaranteed prize money right away. The woman is Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya), née Duncan, a former rising tennis star who suffered a debilitating injury in college and now coaches Arthur, her husband.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Arthur and Patrick used to be best friends and doubles champions before meeting Tashi and becoming instantly smitten with her. Naturally, this leads to a threesome, which leads to a challenge: Whoever wins the boys’ match against each other the next day gets Tashi’s phone number. This challenge and the fallout from it sends the characters on a thirteen-year journey leading to that sweat-soaked tennis match that opens the film. While director Luca Guadagnino throws everything he has at “Challengers” to ensure a sexy, sweaty, stylish, good time, Justin Kuritzkes’s screenplay has some unfortunate lapses when it comes to the characters, especially Tashi.

Tashi’s introduction in the film sets her up as its center. As Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s pulse-pounding score pumps through the speakers, the camera swoops across the length of the tennis court net to zoom in on her in the crowd as the men lobby back and forth. When the boys first see her back when they were all younger, they say she was a phenomenon, already well-known and rich enough that Patrick is shocked when she tells them she will be Arthur’s classmate at Stanford in the fall. She says she wants to ensure she has something to fall back on and doesn’t want to hit balls with a racquet to be her only skill set. It’s one of the precious few moments where Tashi says what she wants, and everyone (including the audience) believes her. Throughout most of the film, Arthur and Patrick constantly tell her what she wants, but she neither confirms nor denies these accusations. Instead, she checks out of the conversation and moves on to something else.

She clearly doesn’t like having other people tell her who she is and what she wants, but the film doesn’t tell us very much about her. She loves tennis, that’s for sure, and she certainly gets turned on by a challenge both on and off the court, but why did she start playing? Where does her competitiveness come from? Why, after going to college instead of turning pro to ensure she has something else besides tennis, does she stay in the tennis world, lamenting that she has no other skill set? Why does she end up marrying Arthur? Why does she stay with him even though they’re both miserable? Kuritzkes provides multiple possible answers to these questions but doesn’t allow Tashi to speak for herself. Not even a performer as talented and charismatic as Zendaya can give a character agency that simply doesn’t exist.

While Tashi is the film’s central character as the fulcrum in the love triangle, she’s not the film’s main character. That honor goes to Arthur and Patrick, who also get shafted by the screenplay in different ways. Right before Tashi issues her challenge to them, she removes herself from a three-way kiss and watches the two boys make out with each other. They go at it much longer than you’d expect for two supposedly straight bros who have supposedly never had a thing for each other. Still, it’s never mentioned again, reducing their makeout session to mere titillation. The genre-mandated falling-out that occurs between Arthur and Patrick doesn’t entirely work, and their last scene together before this shows nowhere near enough of the anger or sense of betrayal that would precipitate such a sudden end to their friendship.

That said, all three stars dig into their roles with gusto, reveling in the dirty mind games the three play with each other just as much as the intense physicality of the tennis matches. They all overflow with charisma, exchanging glances that nearly burn a hole in the screen thanks to Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s penchant for extreme slow-motion. Guadagnino has always been attuned to the sensuality of film, and he goes overboard with it here, stretching out moments of tension so long that you feel it ripping you apart. The club-influenced score pushes things even farther; its arpeggiated pulses change a scene from simmering to boiling as soon as it kicks in. It’s a good thing, too, because what little actual sex we see in the film is extremely tame. Guadagnino’s emphasis on the lead-up to sex serves as a perfect summation of his approach to the film in general, which is focused on surfaces: the sheen of sweat on Faist’s face, the blinding white of O’Connor’s slyly deployed smile, the rage and exhilaration in Tashi’s voice after a great volley on the court. It’s to the film’s benefit as well as its detriment. These surfaces go a long way in selling the film because their boldness excites, sending your pulse racing just like that of the characters. While this makes “Challengers” incredibly entertaining in the moment (especially when you get to watch some of the climatic match from the ball’s point of view), after you leave the theater and start thinking about it, those surfaces fade away, leaving only questions in their wake.

“Challengers” is often breathtaking to watch. The editing of the tennis matches hits hard, and as they did with the sexual tension, Reznor and Ross amp the gameplay up to 11 with their banger of a score. The problem is that the characters never come across as clearly as their lithe bodies do. There’s plenty of intrigue in the love triangle to get people’s mouths dropping and tongues wagging, but the constant mind games the characters play with each other lead to some outcomes that beg the question of who wanted what and why. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s conclusion. Early in the film, Tashi drops some wisdom on the boys: Tennis is a relationship, and when you get into a good game, you understand the other person completely. It’s hardly a groundbreaking observation for a sports drama, but the characters spend so much of the film tussling with each other that it’s hard to see why they would ever want to reconnect outside the bedroom. When they do, they may come to understand each other, but that understanding is kept between them. The audience is on the outside looking in, like a third wheel. Much like that aforementioned threesome, “Challengers” is all foreplay. For many, that’s the best part of sex, but without a good orgasm, foreplay is just a lot of fun that doesn’t lead to anything. It feels amazing, but it can’t help but feel just a little bit unsatisfying.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Luca Guadagnino's sweaty drama pulses with electricity thanks to a propulsive Reznor/Ross score, exciting camera work and editing, and three fiery performances.

THE BAD - The screenplay gives the characters short shrift, leaving many motivations a mystery.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Original Score

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Luca Guadagnino's sweaty drama pulses with electricity thanks to a propulsive Reznor/Ross score, exciting camera work and editing, and three fiery performances.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The screenplay gives the characters short shrift, leaving many motivations a mystery.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-score/">Best Original Score</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"CHALLENGERS"