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Challengers (A Movie Review)


Starring Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist, Jake Jensen, Darnell Appling, Bryan Doo, Shane T Harris, Nada Despotovich, Joan Mcshane, Chris Fowler, Mary Joe Fernandez, AJ Lister, Connor Aulson, Doria Bramante, Christine Dye, James Sylva, Kenneth A. Osherow, Kevin Collins, Burgess Byrd, Jason Tong, Hudson Rivera, Noah Eisenberg and Emma Davis.

Screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino.

Distributed by Amazon MGM Studios. 131 minutes. Rated R.

It’s a problem when you see a movie about a love triangle in which all of the points of that triangle are so toxically unlikeable that you tend to think that they all deserve the misery that they are causing each other.

Oh, sure, some of them are better than others. One of the guys is simply horribly needy, cut off from his feelings and passive aggressive. One of the guys is immature, untrustworthy, vain, jaded and constantly trying to steal his best friend’s girl. In the meantime the woman is a complete horror – selfish, mean, angry, manipulative, unfeeling and treats both of the guys like trash.

You never really understand why both guys seem to be so obsessed with her, other than the possible fact that she is much hotter looking than either of them.

And honestly, with the only slightly closeted homoerotic subtext which kept rearing its head between the two male leads, you tend to think their lives would have been a lot happier had they just forgotten the girl and hooked up with each other.

The real challenge in Challengers is to find a character to root for – either as lovers, or as friends, or even simply as tennis pros. Good luck with that.

Challengers looks at this threesome, flipping back and forth in time over a period of about 13 years. We watch the characters grow from horny college tennis phenoms to horny regulars on the pro circuit, all the while never growing emotionally.

The main character (so much as there is a main character) is Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), an attractive-but-jaded teen tennis phenom whose career is cut short too early by a knee injury. We meet her before she has that life-altering wound, though, when she is still full of potential as a college tennis phenom.

The dudes are Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), who have been friends playing together on the circuit since they were kids. They meet up with Tashi at a teen tournament, talk her up to their room to try to get her drunk. (And, of course, the idea of seducing her lingers in the back of their minds.)

Tashi is more than willing to tease the horny, shy boys, and ends up making out with both of them on the bed – and then she slips out of the embrace and sits back and watches them making out with each other.

Tashi insists early on that she doesn’t want to be a homewrecker, but that is exactly what she becomes, metaphorically.

Over the years Tashi hooks up with both of the guys. First, she is with Patrick, but when she is injured and it becomes obvious that Art has a better career path than Patrick, she gets involved with Art, first as his trainer and eventually as his wife. But their fragile marriage (and their small child) doesn’t mean Tashi is above periodically sleeping with Patrick.

The guys' battle for Tashi is symbolized in their climactic tennis match, which is peppered in throughout the film. Art is near the top of the standings and Patrick is just barely holding on to his spot in the circuit. Art is considering retiring to become a family man (a choice which Tashi is very much against) and wants to go out on top. Patrick needs a big win in order to stay on the pro circuit. Therefore it becomes a grudge match for a pair of guys who already have a serious grudge against each other.

Challengers also does its best to turn tennis into a blood sport, which may even be true, but still it is a bit disorienting on film. The ball constantly hits the racket with a loud report like a gunshot, and on each lunge on the court the players grunt like they are being tortured. While, in fairness, there is some very spectacular tennis footage here, these runaway sound effects also have the tendency of distancing the viewer from the action.

In fairness, Challengers is an extremely well-made film, with good acting on all sides, some terrific sports footage and an evocative visual sense. I just can’t get over the fact that all three of the main characters are such jerks that it is hard to care about any of their lives, careers and their very messy love lives.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: April 25, 2024.

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