Challengers (R) ★★½

Review Date: April 24th, 2024

It seems like another lifetime when director Luca Guadagnino took the indie film-going community by storm with his charming, summery story of love and lust, Call Me by Your Name. With each new release, however, it's seeming more likely that his international breakthrough may have been an outlier. Since then, he has been responsible for an ill-advised remake of the classic Suspiria and the howlingly bad Bones and All (a movie which might have ended the career of many other filmmakers). Guadagnino's latest, the Zendaya-starring Challengers, is a step back toward Call Me by Your Name but the stride is short and the shadow of Bones and All remains long.

This middling melodrama about power, sex, and tennis is heavy on homoeroticism and light on meaningful storytelling. It also suffers from a contorted narrative that hopes all the flashbacks and flash-forwards will paper over story-related problems. Tonal shifts and stylistic choices result in a climactic moment that feels like a parody. And the composing duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross turn in what may be their worst score. To the extent that Challengers works, it's due almost entirely to the acting of the lead trio. Put three lesser-talented performers in these roles and the movie would be on the fast track to a direct-to-streaming release and Amazon Prime obscurity.

Chronologically, the movie opens at the 2007 U.S. Tennis Open where friends and doubles partners Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) are about to contend for the Amateur Men's Singles title. Both are smitten with the new Amateur Women's Singles title-winner, phenom Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who startles them when she agrees to have a date (and maybe more) with them both. She eventually decides to get romantic only with Patrick but remains friends with Art. When her career is ended by a knee injury, Art stays by her side. The two marry and have a child. Years later, at a 2019 pre-U.S. Open Challengers' finals, the one-time friends face off again. Art comes to the match with multiple Grand Slam wins on his resume while Patrick has never amounted to much. But jealousy, ego, and Tashi's manipulations cloud the contest.

Challengers could be deemed a guilty-pleasure type of movie - a cheesy melodrama with a couple of nice twists. The decision to create a jigsaw puzzle narrative that jumps around haphazardly between 2007, 2019, and years in between serves little purpose. The script does a poor job of developing the relationship between Tashi and Art (something that proves critical in later scenes) and it seems as if at least two or three significant moments have been left out. With a little more narrative investment, Tashi could have been truly interesting (and Machiavellian), but the focus is too scattered among the three.

Since starting a second career as movie score composers, Nine Inch Nails members Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have become respected participants in this field, expanding from an initial partnership with David Fincher to work with other directors (including one previous collaboration with Guadagnino, on Bones and All). Challengers, however, represents a misfire. Not only are their synth-pop contributions jarringly out-of-place but they frequently interfere with understanding dialogue. Toward the end, Reznor and Ross' music combines with Guadagnino's over-the-top direction to craft a scene that crosses the line into self-parody. (Yes, I laughed. And I wasn't the only one laughing.)

Often, the actors seem to take the material more seriously than the director. Zendaya, who played a not-dissimilar character in 2021's Malcolm & Marie, continues her quest to prove she's just as good in adult fare as teen-friendly productions. As a quasi-femme fatale, she's beguiling, although her character, who is vividly presented in the early scenes, fades into the background later in the movie. Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist are effective, although their friendship/rivalry lacks the chemistry one might expect from a pair harboring an unspoken attraction.

There's a lot of tennis in Challengers but little is compelling. The reason has to do with how Guadagnino has chosen to present it. Rather than taking a page from Richard Loncraine's 2004 Wimbledon and using a digital ball to fashion realistic court action using the actors, Guadagnino employs editing tricks that rarely allow entire points to be shown. Instead, we get point-of-view shots, camera angles that show only one player at a time, and other "stylistic" choices that highlight the fact we're watching actors and not professional tennis players. Nevertheless, despite all its flaws, Challengers represents watchable high-end soap opera material. The story is undercooked but the dialogue contains some nice zingers and the actors are wholly invested.

© 2024 James Berardinelli