Film Review: Challengers | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  


Director: Luca Guadagnino

Apr 22, 2024 Web Exclusive
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There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale where Jesse Eisenberg’s character Walt is summoned to a school meeting along with his writer-parents Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. A chip off the old block so to speak, Walt’s paper on The Great Gatsby is “quite brilliant” as his father points out, to which the teacher replies, “Yes, but I’m not sure he’s read it”. It’s perhaps the most apt way to describe the tennis in Luca Guadagmnino’s stylish new film Challengers, in which Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist play rival tennis players competing for the heart of fellow protégé Zendaya. Has the revered director ever watched a tennis match? Who’s to say?

Guadagnino is thankfully more adept in presenting an incestuous love triangle between his three leads that spans the course of a dozen or so years. Just young enough to scrape by as wide-eyed eighteen-year-olds, O’Connor is Patrick Zweig, a mercurial talent with enough arrogance and swagger to challenge Nick Kyrgios, with Faist as the more workmanlike Art Donaldson. Both pale in comparison, however, to the enigmatic promise of Zendaya’s Tashi Duncan, who seems destined for greatness, until her career is cut short by injury. Yet these facts aren’t revealed linearly.

Instead, the film cuts to and fro like a good rally as the throuple’s dynamics are gradually revealed. Interspersed are some amusing, often heavy-handed nods to a more fluid modern-day sexuality. Patrick and Art’s relationship doesn’t have the explicit chemistry of Elio and Oliver’s in Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, but the director still examines how rich (or talented) young boys and girls develop in spaces seemingly protected from ‘corruptive’ outside influences. Here, nearly forty years on, attitudes are different, and yet Tashi and the boys still seem stunted in their personal growth, this time by a relentless desire to beat the best and be the best. Both O’Connor and Faist seem dialed in, with a fizzing would they(?) chemistry. Zendaya is better suited to an all-American campus ice queen than she is later as Donaldson’s frustrated wife/coach. All three have a palpable chemistry together, heightened by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s pulsating score.

Yet Guadagnino seems quick to abandon this world. There’s no BTS intrigue with overbearing coaches or parents, no interfering sponsors. The love triangle – a surprisingly conventional one in the end – is often played for cheap laughs that feel social media-ready. No doubt the Warner Bros marketing team will have a full arsenal of content ready to ham up the film’s fairly bland, queer dynamics.

There’s a lot more tennis than you’d expect too. The film’s choppy timeline never really settles, but its anchor point throughout is a climactic match between Patrick and Art, facing off for the first time at the tail-end of their careers. Having squandered his potential, a washed-up Patrick sees his old friend and rival in the final of a ‘challenger’ tournament that Art has also entered to prep for what may be his final shot at the US Open and a potential career Grand Slam-ending. It represents a crossroads of sorts, with Art considering retirement after a run of bad form, while Patrick is looking to take one last shot at success – both romantically and professionally.

Guadagnino proves incapable though, of capturing the sport’s truly thrilling moments– deft volleys, down-the-line winners, booming aces – instead using an increasingly exhausting combination of sweaty slow-motion and pounding dance music to extend rally sequences that fall evermore flat. During this final matchup, the restless timeline hops one last time to the stormy night before – perhaps WB’s Twisters was being filmed on the adjacent set? – where Patrick and Tashi’s late-night encounter feeds the tension of this final matchup. But frankly, the less said about the film’s final scenes, the better. What Guadagnino serves up prior is far more fun.

To its credit, Challengers represents an enjoyable and original diversion from the cult-like worship of professional sport’s biggest names prevalent in many of the formulaic sports docs and biopics currently cluttering up streamers. Our three fictional tennis players offer a welcome break from PG-rated platitudes and inspirational quotes. It may even prove worthy of its own devotion as perhaps one of the great bad movies of the 21st Century. Zendaya’s star power should ensure a potentially healthy box office return on what’s reported to be a relatively modest budget. And a vehicle to fast-track Faist and O’Connor’s rise should be welcomed. But ultimately, its success may lie at the fingertips of Letterboxd users, stan accounts, and fan-cam aficionados. Hit and miss at the best of times.

Author rating: 4/10

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