Five Cent Cine: Challengers

Challengers ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)

“Are you talking about tennis?”

In the final seconds of “Challengers,” Tashi (Zendaya) breaks the plane of her controlled, low-affect character to hurl a word or phrase or exultation, of exasperation or anger or enthusiasm, translated in the subtitles as “Andiamo!” (“Let’s go!”). Does she want her husband Art to win the match she’s just witnessed? Or her former lover Patrick? Is she expressing ecstasy at the quality of the tennis the two men have, finally, achieved? Is she celebrating a relationship she earlier acknowledged and now must concede is transcendent? Is she simply disgusted, perhaps ready to begin a new phase of her life? It’s a tribute to Zendaya, to Luca Guadagnino’s direction, to Justin Kuritzkes’ script—and to a disturbingly loud soundtrack that disrupts and muddies critical dialogue—that after 2 hours of melodrama, we don’t know.

It’s a tennis film, but not all fans will appreciate how the sport is presented. “Challengers” is not about tennis strategy, or training, or exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses, or hitting a baseline winner, or the “moneyball” numbers that have increasingly influenced the game. Indeed, Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who also worked with Guadagnino on “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), presents tennis in the way that acrobatic flight is depicted in 2022’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and similar films: compelling and powerful, but impossible to know who is doing what, or who is winning. Sometimes you’re the ball. Enjoy the ride.

More than that, “Challengers” isn’t about tennis, except as a metaphor for a particular kind of passion. It uses the game as a backdrop for exploring an especially complex triangle of relationships among Tashi, Art (Mike Faist), and Patrick (Josh O’Connor, in a role and performance that couldn’t be more different from the staid Prince Charles in TV’s “The Crown” or the sullen mystery man of “La Chimera” (2024), directed by another Italian, Alice Rohrwacher).

The story moves forward and backward through three moments in time: Patrick and Art as 12-year-old close friends and tennis prodigies, playfully enjoying each other as 12-year-old-boys will do; 6 years later, the triangle forms–Patrick and Art, winners of a youth doubles tournament, and now the seductive and flirtatious Tashi, on her way to Stanford, a budding tennis-obsessed super-star (until she suffers a career-ending knee injury). She’s interested in both men, and they in her. Then, the trio 13 years later: Tashi, married to Grand Slam champion Art and mother to their 6-year-old daughter, still tennis-obsessed but living her own thwarted dreams through Art, whom she coaches and whose career she manages; and Patrick, an amiable, charismatic tennis bottom-feeder, sleeping in his car and begging for a sandwich, competing in a mis-matched outfit. It’s all about to come together at the New Rochelle Challenger Tournament, where Patrick and Art, no longer friends, could play each other for the first time in years, with Tashi observing from center court and brooding in the wings.

The film works off Tashi’s seductive beauty and sensuality, and her passionate, arguably erotic, commitment to tennis played at its best, characteristics which balance (without canceling) a transactional, and curiously unromantic perspective, encapsulated in her career-convenient marriage to Art. She’s interesting but not likeable.

Presented by Zendaya with an emotional distance similar to her Chani in “Dune: Part Two” (2024), Tashi’s posture of cold, rational remove contrasts with Art and Patrick, guys as different as night and day yet flesh-and-blood characters we care about. You’ll wonder if Guadagnino will “make the couple,” a tantalizing possibility made real by “Call Me by Your Name,” the director’s break-out film, or be content to leave us with an updated version of the 12-year-olds’ bromance.

If it’s supposed to be Tashi’s film, “my little white boys,” as she calls them, steal the show. More germane to the film’s considerable intensity than Tashi’s dissatisfaction with her own life course are the distinct personalities, psyches and, one could say, world views, of Art and Patrick. Art (an absolutely credible Faist), neurotic, plagued by a lack of self-confidence, driven to near burn-out by his wife, imagining retirement; and Patrick, presumably less talented than Art and certainly less successful, yet comfortable in his own skin, doing what he wants to do, down but not out, grateful for that sandwich, always ready with a smile, mischievous and endearing. 

One man driven by Tashi’s dream, the other living his own. It almost makes you want to play tennis.

Date: 2024

Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 131 minutes

Other Awards: 1 nomination to date

Availability: Showing nationally in theaters. Not streaming at this time. For future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.

Lead image: Tashi (Zendaya) with “my little white boys,” Art (Mike Faist), left, and Patrick (Josh O’Connor), right.

See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics

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