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‘Challengers’ Review: The Sound and the Fury of a Jumbled Three-Way Tennis Romance

Love triangles can make for great drama. That’s especially true when neither possible relationship feels definitively right and audiences can opt to root for a side. But there is a way to tell such stories in a coherent and compelling manner, starting from a worthwhile point of interest and then following their trajectory to a satisfying finish. Challengers has elements of intrigue that it presents starkly, but its construction begs multiple questions that, ultimately, don’t feel at all resolved.

Challengers opens on Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) squaring off against Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) at a tennis qualifier tournament, with both men competing fiercely as Art’s wife Tashi (Zendaya) watches. There’s considerable history there, revealed gradually as the film jumps back and forth between different time periods, beginning with young best friends Art and Patrick meeting tennis prodigy Tashi before Patrick begins dating Art, causing severe friction in their relationship. As the years go on, these three can’t avoid running into each other, and it all comes to a head at the present-day tournament.

The premise and setup of this film is indeed promising, bringing together three extremely promising actors who have all accomplished a great deal before the age of thirty-five (before thirty, in Zendaya’s case). Zendaya is a two-time Emmy winner for her extraordinary turn on Euphoria. O’Connor won an Emmy for his portrayal of Prince Charles in the fourth season of The Crown. Faist earned a Tony nomination for Dear Evan Hansen and a BAFTA nomination for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. Working with a visionary director like Luca Guadagnino could well have been the next big step in their careers.

Guadagnino has demonstrated a magnificent ability to showcase romance and intimacy in projects that are radically different from one another, like I Am Love, Call Me By Your Name, and Bones and All. On paper, he’s uniquely qualified to steer this film, which is laced with sexual tension from start to finish, and to give it his dependable focus. But there’s so little about this film that feels like anything he’s done before, much less sophisticated and surprisingly devoid of serious connection. While its characters are first introduced as adults, it feels for its entire runtime that they’re still the same immature teenagers they are in the film’s chronologically earliest sequences.

When Art and Patrick first begin drooling over Tashi, who they describe as the hottest woman they’ve ever seen, she expresses trepidation about starting a relationship with either of them because she’s not, in her own words, a homewrecker. That doesn’t stop her from almost immediately pitting them against each other after giving them both an unforgettable tease, which makes her just as complicit in the erosion of a previously unbreakable bond between the two excitable young men. While Art and Patrick are alternately cast as the villains of the story, Tashi is far from innocent.

Challengers suffers from a disorienting and confusing timeline, one which features innumerable jumps that are hard to follow even for audiences following very closely. The way in which information is revealed lends itself to sensationalism over substance, referencing a significant backstory but only landing at certain key moments that leave much to be imagined in the large swaths of time that fill the gaps. Following this story from its chronological start to its big fakeoff might have been just as worthwhile, and potentially more energizing since the plot and characters could speak for themselves rather than be subservient to head-spinning editing choices. There are also some outright strange camera decisions, like presenting scenes from the point of view of the tennis ball, which doesn’t prove at all effective.

Tennis fans may enjoy watching the matches, which are admittedly enthralling and showcase three players who bring passion and fury to their games. But they will surely be distracted by the solid but shockingly loud score from the Oscar-winning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which starts up without warning on multiple occasions and in some cases overwhelms the dialogue, making it difficult to hear. It’s emblematic of the film’s core issues as a whole. While Zendaya and O’Connor in particular bring a great deal of very watchable ferocity to their roles, the way the story is framed makes it hard to penetrate. It’s riveting at moments and maddening at others, unsure of exactly what it wants to be and, most importantly, who’s actually meant to be its protagonist.

Movie Rating: 5/10

Awards Buzz: While all three actors do have strong awards track records, this early release, following the film’s canceled plans to open the Venice International Film Festival last year, don’t bode too well. The volume of the score may make that element of this film its likeliest awards player.

Check out another perspective in our review from Stacey Yvonne!

Author

  • Abe Friedtanzer

    Abe Friedtanzer is a film and TV enthusiast who spent most of the past fifteen years in New York City. He has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them.

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