‘Challengers’ Review: Zendaya’s Tennis Drama Fizzles Out

Director Luca Guadagnino’s latest is a pointless volley of verbal insults

"Challengers"
"Challengers" (Credit: Prime Video)

Watching Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, “Challengers,” is akin to watching a living tennis match. Sometimes it’s exciting. Sometimes it’s boring as hell. And the comparison here isn’t just a stretch made by the critic — it’s literally mentioned several times by the characters.

“Tennis is like a relationship,” Zendaya’s cool ice-queen Tashi Duncan says. “Are we talking about tennis?” player Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) asks her later, to which she responds, “We’re always talking about tennis.”

It’s one of many “huh” moments in “Challengers,” which has all the gloss and sexiness of a ’90s-era erotic thriller without any of the actual sex, despite what the Rihanna-laced trailer led us all to believe. Zendaya plays the aforementioned Tashi, who we’re introduced to in 2019 as she’s the constantly scowling brains behind her husband Art’s (Mike Faist) stagnate tennis career. In the hopes of getting Art’s swagger back Tashi puts him in a local tennis competition in New Rochelle, where coincidentally he’s teamed up with former friend, Patrick Zweig.

The movie exhaustively volleys between several different time periods between 2006 and 2019 to show different moments in the trio’s relationship. Outside of musical cues and the actors’ differing hairstyles there’s little distinction in the time jumps and, at times, the scene-by-scene text detailing which period we’re in becomes hard to parse out.

Justin Kuritzkes’ script, which made The Black List in 2021, has a similar sense of momentum, increasing in rapid-fire moments of dialogue and the physical playing of tennis, only to come to a grinding halt the minute things get exciting. Little is known about Tashi as a character, short of her background as an elite college athlete waylaid by a devastating knee injury. Once that happens she becomes a total cypher, with Zendaya left to be so cool as to be blank. Tashi is certainly bitter about her losing her opportunity to be a star, and is frustrated that Art is content to return before he’s 40.

But her decisions with regards to her husband and his former best friend are left blank. We certainly know how they feel about her but we’re never clear on how she feels about them. This never feels like ambiguity but more presenting the character as a blank canvas, left to be filled by the men in her life. Zendaya certainly tries hard with the role and the moments when Tashi is allowed to be the mean, pushy coach there’s a genuine fire to her performance. Too often though it’s marred by beautifully filmed slow motion scenes that are meant to give gravity to but just look silly.

The real strength comes from Faist and O’Connor, whose chemistry with each other is often more intense than either of them with Zendaya. Faist, in particular, is the MVP with a performance that seems meek on the surface but illustrates so much of the character’s self-doubt. Where O’Connor’s Patrick is brash and charming, Faist’s Art is quiet and contemplative, perpetually in a game of one-upmanship opposite his closest confidante. A scene between the two in a sauna perfectly encapsulates their relationship and, at times, it’s frustrating that the film doesn’t know how to balance between their story and Tashi’s. O’Connor is also fabulous, in a role that requires him to be all smarm and swagger.

The relationship between this devil’s threesome certainly yields promise, though the whole thing feels far more chaste than you’d expect. Again, that hyped up threesome sequence is pretty much relegated to making out, which sets the tone for the rest of the film’s intimate moments. And, sure, today’s youth don’t necessarily need sex in their movies to create intimacy, but the expectation is that a fair amount of sizzle will be seen on screen when, really, things never really make it to a boil.

The problems lie more so with the filmmaking itself. The heavy use of slow motion is a big offender, as is a specific musical cue that plays every. single. time. two out of the three characters start to verbally spar with each other. (You know, like a tennis match!) The cue completely drowns out the dialogue in some scenes and plays more like a drop you’d hear in a soap opera. The third act also becomes heavily reliant on POV shots of Patrick and Art hitting the ball, with a GoPro going back and forth in a way that’s going to induce many a headache.

It’s frustrating as there are plenty of individual moments where “Challengers” comes together. Faist, O’Connor and Zendaya have the ability to rise to the … challenge … but the script hampers them at every turn. There’s a lot of tennis playing, but be prepared for a healthy dose of reminders as to why it’s more than just a game, it’s a way of life.

“Challengers” hits theaters April 26.

Comments

One response to “‘Challengers’ Review: Zendaya’s Tennis Drama Fizzles Out”

  1. Jim Avatar
    Jim

    Yes! Yes! YES!!
    “Sometimes it’s boring as hell.”
    “The movie exhaustively volleys between several different time periods…”
    “…marred by beautifully filmed slow motion scenes that are meant to give gravity to but just look silly.”
    “The third act also becomes heavily reliant on POV shots of Patrick and Art hitting the ball, with a GoPro going back and forth in a way that’s going to induce many a headache.”
    Thank you for this!!!!!

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