Friday, June 14, 2024

Review: Zendaya’s ‘Challengers’ serves up saucy melodrama – and some good tennis, too

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The saucy tennis melodrama “Challengers” is all about the emotional games we play with each other, though there are certainly enough volleys, balls and close-up sweat globules if you’re more into jockstraps than metaphors.

Italian director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) puts an art-house topspin on the sports movie, with fierce competition, even fiercer personalities and athletic chutzpah set to the thumping beats of a techno-rific Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score. “Challengers” (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday) centers on the love triangle between doubles partners-turned-rivals (Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor) and a teen wunderkind (Zendaya) and how lust, ambition and power dynamics evolve their relationships over the course of 13 years.

The movie opens with Art (Faist) and Tashi (Zendaya) as the It couple of pro tennis: He’s eyeing a U.S. Open title, the only tournament he’s never won, while she’s his intense coach, manager and wife, a former sensation along the lines of a Venus or Serena whose career was cut short by a gnarly knee injury. To build up his flagging confidence after recent losses, Tashi enters Art in a lower-level event that he can dominate – until he faces ex-bestie Patrick (O’Connor) in the final match.

Justin Kuritzkes’ soapy screenplay bounces between that present and the trios’ complicated past via flashbacks, starting when Art and Patrick – a ride-or-die duo known as “Fire and Ice” – both have eyes for Tashi. All three are 18 and the hormones are humming: The boys have been tight since they were preteens at boarding school, but a late-night, three-way makeout session, and the fact that she’ll only give her number to whoever wins the guys’ singles match, creates a seismic crack that plays itself out over the coming years.

All three main actors ace their arcs and changing looks over time – that’s key in a nonlinear film like this that’s all over the place. As Tashi, Zendaya plays a woman who exudes an unshakable confidence, though her passion for these two men is seemingly her one weakness. Faist (“West Side Story”) crafts Art as a talented precision player whose love for the game might not be what it once was, while O’Connor (“The Crown”) gives Patrick a charming swagger with and without a racket, even though his life has turned into a bit of a disaster.

From the start, the men’s closeness hints at something more than friendship, a quasi-sexual tension that Tashi enjoys playing with: She jokes that she doesn’t want to be a “homewrecker” yet wears a devilish smile when Art and Patrick kiss, knowing the mess she’s making.

Tennis is “a relationship,” Tashi informs them, and Guadagnino uses the sport to create moments of argumentative conversation as well as cathartic release. Propelled by thumping electronica, his tennis scenes mix brutality and grace, with stylish super-duper close-ups and even showing the ball’s point of view in one dizzying sequence. Would he do the same with, say, curling or golf? It’d be cool to see because more often than not, you want to get back to the sweaty spectacle.

Guadagnino could probably make a whole movie about masculine vulnerability in athletics rather than just tease it with “Challengers,” with revealing bits set in locker rooms and saunas. But the movie already struggles with narrative momentum, given the many tangents in Tashi, Art and Patrick’s thorny connections: While not exactly flabby, the film clocks in at 131 minutes and the script could use the same toning up as its sinewy performers.

While “Challengers” falls nebulously somewhere between a coming-of-age flick, dysfunctional relationship drama and snazzy sports extravaganza, Guadagnino nevertheless holds serve with yet another engaging, hot-blooded tale of flawed humans figuring out their feelings.

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