Thursday, April 25, 2024


What a mess. You know you are in trouble when in the final act of a film, particularly a sports film, you find yourself with no investment or interest in the outcome. Honestly, shouldn't I be cheering for someone? Anyone? Anyone at all? A Challenger is a tennis tournament, often with local sponsorship for small prize money, for those not quite good enough for the main tour tournaments. The film from director Luca Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes is aptly named as it too is not-yet-ready for prime time.

There are certainly interesting aspects to the film, but man does Challengers go off the rails in terms of plot, acting, directing, writing, cinematography, score, and editing. It's impressive in how a movie like this is bungled in nearly every level of filmmaking simultaneously. At any time Challengers is a soap opera drama, a sports story, a tepid love triangle (where only the two men have any chemistry for each other), a one-sided sports rivalry, and a drama about the grind of tennis on relationships.

The uneven production that offers extended shots of characters set to anything from techno dance beats to the random use of a capella choir (every single time in jarring fashion) centers around two former best friends (Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor) both falling for the same girl (Zendaya). Not surprisingly, she goes for the more charming bad boy in college but later settles on the more stable of the two to build a life together. In between there's drama, although not as much as you would expect (or at least nothing all that interesting), and some marginally passable (but not that memorable) tennis play.

Not strong enough for a linear tale, the film is broken up and segments shown out teasing out the explanation of how we reached the point where the two former friends are battling it at a low-rent Challenger tournament far off the beaten path of the main tour for as much as the love of a woman as the actual tournament win. Some of these sequences work, many do not, and the bizarre choices (including schizophrenic filming at the end of the final tennis match which becomes the most blurry shaky-cam I can ever remember attempted) only add the the unpolished nature of the clusterfuck unfolding in front of your eyes.

The film was sold, largely, on a single scene heavily used in both trailers and TV-spots teasing a threesome grouping of our three stars which really only exists in that form in the footage you've already seen. That scene will no doubt drive Zendaya fans into the film. The tepid nature of what follows, however, may not keep their interest. What we get instead is hurt feelings and plenty of passive aggressiveness and furtive looks which lead only to the center court of this tournament that ultimately doesn't mean anything.

Speaking of Zendaya, she looks great despite being saddled with the most unlikable character in the film. This is problematic as the film is structured in a way that her love is the ultimate prize the two men are fighting over, a love that destroyed their friendship, and a love that both crave more than their own happiness or career success. However, when we're shown over and over that that object of desire central to the entire plot of the film isn't worthy of such devotion. She's manipulative, unethical, controlling, and unfaithful in every relationship, and so we're left with a hole that the script can find nothing else to fill. 

If the film's style, as bizarre as it is, can keep your interest, or you are just showing up to see Zendaya look cute in tennis skirts playing through rejected soap opera plot, you may find enough to pass the time. For me, the film's negatives ultimately crushed what positives it has in its tennis bag. There's a sequence in one of the tennis matches where a character simply gives up, unwilling to go any further. I can't think of a more apt analogy for my experience viewing Challengers which eventually similarly wore me down taking a mildly enjoyable little film that devolved over two hours into a hot mess leading me to question the career decisions of everyone involved.

Watch the trailer
  • Title: Challengers
  • IMDb: link

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