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“Challengers”

#6   Challengers
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
LOVE MEANS NOTHING: Tennis players work up a sweat on and off the court in “Challengers” starring Mike Faist (from left), Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor.
Friday April 26, 2024 12:00 AM EDT
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CRITIC’S PICK: Mainstream movies aren’t sexy enough these days, or so goes a popular argument on social media. The big, IP-driven films that make up most Hollywood product show much more interest in computer-generated special effects than the heat generated between actors. With Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino shows how to explore desire and celebrate bodies without being pornographic. 

Depicting a romantic triangle between professional tennis players on the courts and in their bedrooms, Challengers plays like a master class in cinematic chemistry, showing the overly chaste movies how to strike sparks.

Challengers introduces Art and Tashi Donaldson (Mike Faist and Zendaya), a power couple at the height of their fame. Tashi, a former player permanently sidelined due to an injury, has become Art’s wife, coach and business partner. The film captures the elevated lifestyle of celebrity athletes, living in a series of luxury hotels with their daughter and her caregiver — presumably they have a home, but we never see it.

Years of championship play have taken a toll on Art’s body and spirit, so Tashi hopes to build his confidence by placing him at a modest U.S. Open qualifying tournament sponsored by “Phil’s Tire Town.” It’s slumming for Art but the last chance for Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a broke tennis pro sleeping in his car and existing paycheck to paycheck on the lower-level tennis circuit. 

The film quickly flashes back 13 years to reveal that as college students, Patrick and Art were inseparable friends and champion doubles players. At a swanky party sponsored by Adidas they meet gorgeous, glamorous Tashi, her accident years away. Like any college kids, they go back to a seedy motel room, where they sit on the floor, drink beers and one thing leads to another. Art and Patrick have both fallen hard for her, but Tashi also clocks that the friends have an attraction to each other.

Challengers volleys back and forth between Art and Patrick’s present-day match and the trio’s complicated history. Tashi’s less interested in love than someone with passion and drive to match hers, but Art and Patrick both have different priorities in different points in their lives. The three performers are marvelously in sync, their body language and attentiveness to one another conveying magnetism that often runs counter to their spoken dialogue. 

Guadagnino established himself as a keen observer in on-screen passion in his bittersweet masterpiece Call Me By Your Name. Challengers finds him a bit more playful, and while the sex scenes steam up the action, they’re not as explicit as you’d expect. (Oscar-winner Poor Things, for comparison, is much more graphic.) One sequence features male frontal nudity, but just involving randos in a locker room. 

If the hook-ups build tension, the tennis matches release it, at least for the audience. Reminiscent of the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, the tennis sequences use so many techniques, it’s as if no two are alike. At times it’s like Guadagnino has put GoPro cameras on the players, on their rackets and even the tennis balls rocketing back and forth. If the rest of the film weren’t so well-grounded, they’d be borderline laughable, but as is, the tennis matches scenes show-off technique in a delightful way.

Between this and Dune Part Two, Zendaya stars in far and away the best two films of 2024 so far. Despite the compelling techno-score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Challengers plays like a shaggy character study from the 1970s, less interested in tight screenplay construction than the nuances of people’s wants and needs. Thoughtful, heartfelt and sexy, Challengers is a grand s

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