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  • Colin Fraser

CHALLENGERS

TWO AND A HALF STARS Three tennis players fall in and out love on their way to the US Open.

DRAMA US English #CHALLENGERS

Starring Zendaya, Josh O'Connor




Don’t be fooled by the trailer. This is not a sports film per se, nor is it a battle about who gets to sit atop a love-triangle. For one thing, a triangle requires all three sides need to connect and these patently don’t. This is a distracting movie, competent certainly, but underneath all the visual trickery and sweaty ball play is a film that’s urgently trying to paper over its roots - now adrift between sporty soap opera and psycho-sexual drama, CHALLENGERS comes up love-all (in the tennis sense, not the emotional one).


Art (Mike Faist - WEST SIDE STORY) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor - LA CHIMERA) are best friends and college tennis players with their eye on the big time. They’re good enough to get there. So is Tashi (Zendaya - DUNE) and one drunken night, away from the gaze of their chaperones, the three become friends. Really good friends. Like good enough to dump my old best friend for my new best friend good friends.


Tricky.


Fast forward to just before the end and Tashi is out of tennis due injury, her husband Art is a former world champ who’s down on his game while her ex-boyfriend Patrick is living out of his car. The dots are joined in flashback while we work forward towards a grudge match showdown between Art and Patrick; the game that could take them (back) into the big time.


At it’s heart, CHALLENGERS is about passion, something Guadagnino (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) has shown he knows all about. Good-boy Art, bad-boy Patrick and Tashi feel it for tennis, they feel it for each other but we don’t get to feel it very much at all. Think of a practice swing without a tennis ball - all movement, no result. The problem rests with a script that is nervous about which story it’s trying to tell - sport or sex? Consequently there’s an emptiness at its core that renders the film without, well, passion.


Despite the celebration of Zendaya’s star-billing, she does what she mostly always does: look pissed off. It’s not unreasonable given Tashi’s thwarted career, failed relationships, Patrick’s yammering and Art’s plummeting stock. But truth is she never looked pleased in either of the DUNEs either. Her celebrity might sell the movie, though two-plus hours with P.E. teacher attitude asks a lot of an audience who are just there to watch, not play. 


In some respects, Josh O’Connor’s Patrick is the only one who gets out alive, his roguish charm also earning him the best lines. He may be a cad but he’s frequently a hoot with the former Prince Charles (THE CROWN) clearly relishing the chance to go full soap opera even as Guadagnino back-pedals on the promise of the film’s set up (apex woman puts man-boys in their respective places). 


All the same, there are many glittering scenes that serve to entertain, and distract us from what could have been. There is slow-motion, super-slow-motion, close-ups, super close-ups, ball-cam, racket-cam and more than many sweat-cams. Come the inevitable grudge match shot in a blaze of artful abstract we finally get the film we’d been waiting for. Pity it was such a short set.


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