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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Challengers’ review: Game, set, love matches

The stars of “Challengers,” from left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor, in Los Angeles in April 2024. Ambition, jealousy and “erotic amusement” are entangled in director Luca Guadagnino’s new movie about three tennis pros at different stages of their careers and lives. (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)..

By Manohla Dargis

You can always feel filmmaker Luca Guadagnino trying to turn you on — he’s a zealous seducer. His movies are sleek divertissements about ravishing people and their often sumptuously rarefied sensibilities and worlds. I tend to like his work, even if it can be overly art-directed and feel too (excuse the verb) curated to stir the soul along with my consumer lust. I am moved when a father tenderly comforts his son in “Call Me by Your Name”; my most vivid memories of “A Bigger Splash” are its striking setting and a dress that Tilda Swinton wears.

Guadagnino’s latest, “Challengers,” is about a continually changing love triangle involving two besotted men and a sharp, beautiful woman with killer instincts and personal style. Largely set in the world of professional tennis, it is a fizzy, lightly sexy, enjoyable tease of a movie, and while someone suffers a bad injury and hearts get broken (or at least banged up), for the most part it’s emotionally bloodless. Even so, it’s a welcome break in tone and topic after Guadagnino’s Grand Guignol adventures in “Suspiria,” a take on a Dario Argento horror film, and “Bones and All,” about two pretty cannibals hungrily and moodily adrift.

Written by novelist and playwright Justin Kuritzkes, “Challengers” is fairly straightforward despite its self-consciously tortured narrative timeline. It tracks three tennis prodigies — friends, lovers and foes — across the years through their triumphs and defeats, some shared. When it opens, the troika’s one-time brightest prospect, Tashi (Zendaya), has been retired from playing for a while and is now coaching her husband, Art (Mike Faist), a Grand Slam champ rapidly spiraling downward. In a bid to reset his prospects (he’s a valuable property, for one), he enters a challenger tournament, a kind of minor-league event where lower-ranking professionals compete, including against injured higher-ranking players.

That match takes place in New Rochelle, New York, an easy drive from Flushing, Queens, and the home of the U.S. Open, which Art has yet to win. It’s while in New Rochelle that he and Tashi dramatically reconnect with Patrick (Josh O’Connor), the errant member of their complicated three-way entanglement. A rich boy who cosplays as poor (well, at least struggling), Patrick met Art when they were children at a tennis academy. By 18, they were tight friends and perhaps something more; the movie coyly leaves just how close to your imagination, even as it fires it up. It’s at that point that they met Tashi, then a fast-rocketing star.

Soon after the movie opens in 2019, it jumps to the recent past (“two weeks earlier”) and then starts bouncing around back and forth in time like a ball flying over the net, with the New Rochelle match serving as the story’s frame. (The 2019 date may be a nod to an epic men’s final at Wimbledon that year in which, after nearly five hours, Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer.) Turning back the clock can be a cheap way to make movies appear more complex than they actually are. Here, though, as the story leaps from past to present — from when Tashi, Art and Patrick were feverishly young to when they were somewhat less young — time begins to blur, underscoring that the passing years haven’t changed much.

All three leads in “Challengers” are very appealing, and each brings emotional and psychological nuance to the story, whatever the characters’ current configuration. They’re also just fun to look at, and part of the pleasure of this movie is watching pretty people in states of undress restlessly circling one another, muscles tensed and desiring gazes ricocheting. Guadagnino knows this; he’s in his wheelhouse here, and you can feel his delight in his actors. With cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, he shows them off beautifully, caressing them in light so that they look lit from within. Even during the fantastically staged and shot — and very sweaty — New Rochelle match, they glow.

Much like her character, Zendaya gives the movie a jolt of glamour, which draws you to Tashi, even as the writing keeps her frustratingly distant. Tashi is, in many ways, the shrewdest and toughest of the three friends, and it’s she who artfully finesses Art and Patrick to bookend her body, perched on a bed soon after they meet. Zendaya is more convincing off the court than on it. Yet whatever doubts you have about her as a sports sensation are immaterial simply because the actress’ own magnetism is undeniable. Hers is a charismatic force field — call it stardom — that in old Hollywood once turned ordinary mortals into gods.

For his part, Faist opens up the puppyish Art, letting you to see the character’s vulnerability, which makes him sympathetic until it makes him just sad. But it’s O’Connor who pushes the material toward something like depth. O’Connor played such an insufferable version of the young Prince Charles in the series “The Crown” that I had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. Patrick is an altogether different kind of off-putting type; he swaggers and smirks and, in one scene, drops his towel in the sauna. It’s a bit of sly gamesmanship; it’s also flirting. His confidence gives him an erotic charge that fires up Art and Tashi, and neither seems able to quit him even after drama and disaster upend the trio.

That disaster is a big deal, or it’s meant to be, but Guadagnino is better at blissfully gliding along the surfaces of life than he is at digging too far beneath them. Which is fine, really! One of the other pleasures of “Challengers” is that despite some tears, tightened jaws and its fussy chronology, the movie isn’t trying to say anything important, which is a relief. It wants to engage and entertain you, and it does that very nicely. A dreamy movie is sometimes all you want, and if it inspires you to pick up a racket or a date, or just rewatch a delight like Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 “Design for Living,” about a different sexy trio, so much the better.


Rated R for pillow talk and some discreet lovemaking. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. In theaters.

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