Challengers Teases with Tennis and Sexy Times, But Falls Short of Euphoria

It's Zendaya's world and we're all just doing gay shit in it

Apr 26, 2024 at 6:00 am
In Challengers, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are former pals turned tennis rivals — and Zendaya is in the middle.
In Challengers, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are former pals turned tennis rivals — and Zendaya is in the middle. METRO GOLDWYN MAYER PICTURES © 2023 METRO GOLDWYN MAYER PICTURES INC.

I haven’t seen a movie that edges its audience with more cruel glee than Challengers, Luca Guadagnino’s latest horny-in-theory story of complicated romance.

Anyone expecting a moist-and-sweaty Jules et Jim set in the competitive world of professional tennis, which is what I thought when I kept seeing the trailer, will be slightly disappointed (and even a bit impressed) by how much this movie teases you. Whether it’s in the bedroom or on the court, the Call Me by Your Name director goes to extreme lengths to make sure the characters — and the audience — don’t reach a climax until the time is just right. 

The entire film takes place on a buzzing tennis court as waning tennis champion Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and struggling has-been Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), two pals-turned-rivals, play an intense game. Also there is Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a one-time tennis prodigy who was once Zweig’s main squeeze and is now Donaldson’s devoted wife/coach.

As Zweig and Donaldson battle it out on the court, Guadagnino tells how this twisted love triangle came to be through good ol’ non-linear storytelling. Flashbacks literally pile on top of flashbacks as we visit these three in their younger years, back when the boys were shaggy-haired BFFs who immediately became smitten with Duncan and her beautiful ferocity. We also slide into their more adult years, when Donaldson has to keep the winning going for both himself and his wife, who gets sidelined by a career-crushing injury and still can’t seem to get over her bummy-ass ex whenever they’re in the same vicinity. 

Right from the opening seconds, Guadagnino creates an athletic melodrama that crackles with lustful intensity. He even gets Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to supply a throbbing techno score that surfaces whenever these characters get hot and bothered — physically, mentally, emotionally — on screen. 

Guadagnino is ever the stealthy queer filmmaker; anyone hoping for Zendaya to get butt-bald-nekkid will also be disappointed by the bare, loose male genitals that are often on display. With screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes (who’s also written Guadagnino’s upcoming film, aptly titled Queer), Guadagnino subtly drops hints that these buds are more into each other than the gal in the middle. The scene where they have an in-your-face convo while eating phallic-looking churros is a dead giveaway. Faist credibly pulls off the feat of going from young, callow third wheel to middle-aged, frustrated third wheel, while O’Connor, that Jeremy Sisto-looking Brit, plays the asshole role with oily unrepentance. 

As for the star of the show, I’ve never seen a young actress so eager to play a grown-ass, take-charge woman like Zendaya, who also serves as a producer. Just as she recently showed in the mega-blockbuster Dune sequel, Zendaya always acts like she dares people to dismiss her as demure and waifish. From the get-go, Queen Euphoria is in charge of this wild ride, and those two poor, dumb bastards have no choice but to follow her lead. Even when her character ropes the two into a late-night makeout session that ends on a very homoerotic note, Zendaya quietly makes it official that it’s her world and we’re all just doing gay shit in it.

Zendaya also has no problem playing someone whose thirst for competition supersedes her need to make rational decisions. Her character faces that dilemma that many women have dealt with: Should she stick with a stable yet unfulfilling life with her reliable simp husband, or risk all that shit for the unworthy, irresponsible douchebag who can bring the ruckus sexually (and personally)? 

I wish I was as enthused about Challengers as my fellow film-critic colleagues. Apparently, the issue of whether or not sex is essential in movies has become such a tiresome debate, some people are ready to cheer a film that at least presents the idea that its main characters want to jump each other’s bones.

But as wild and insane as Guadagnino makes the tennis sequences between O’Connor and Faist (we even catch the match from the tennis ball’s perspective!), Challengers, like most heated, emotional, one-on-one interactions, comes to a messy, baffling finish. Not to mention that the absurdly-heightened finale declares what this movie truly is: the most bros-before-hoes movie Guadagnino has ever made.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino. Written by Justin Kuritzkes. Opens April 26.

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