If Only Challengers Were as Hot as It’s Trying to Be

Luca Guadagnino’s tennis pro drama Challengers is a test of Zendaya’s star power. She passes. But the promised hot-and-heavy love triangle doesn’t deliver.

Still from Challengers. (Amazon / MGM)

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Challengers is doing very well both at bringing people into theaters and racking up a startling number of positive reviews from critics too. Me? I thought it was silliest soap opera I’d seen in quite a while.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino of Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria (2018) fame, Challengers is a about a love triangle involving three tennis players that persists through thirteen tedious years, from 2006 to 2019. We get their professional triumphs and flameouts as well as their personal shenanigans that include endlessly troubled relationships, cheating hookups, and lots of betrayals and backstabbing on repeat. The selling point is that it’s all supposed to be heatedly erotic, featuring many sex scenes with various combinations of the three attractive leads.

Zendaya, who also produces, stars as Tashi, an idolized tennis ace in high school and college with an empty social-conscience line of patter whose career-ending injury pushes her into coaching. She dazzles two other young tennis champs who are best friends and quite attracted to each other as well. There’s nice, shy, blonde Art (Mike Faist) who goes on to become a major tennis star and marries Tashi. And there’s the rich, dark, bratty, bad-boy type, Patrick (Josh O’Connor). He has a long-distance affair with Tashi before she marries Art. His erratic career involves flashes of brilliance in an overall professional slide that leads to an increasingly seedy existence playing more obscure matches and living out of his car.

When, after many years apart, Patrick once again meets Art and Tashi for a reckoning, she’s coaching Art and growing increasingly fed up with her husband’s losing streak and steadily flagging interest in the demanding life of a tennis champ. Having been sidelined as a player herself, she’s maddened by her husband’s ability to recover from injuries and continue having a top career that he doesn’t seem to value. “I’d kill to have had a recovery like that,” she tells him. “I’d stab a child or an old person.”

Her lust for Patrick gets rekindled at the hotel where they’re all staying for a Challenger event. The tensions between all three build as bitterly estranged “friends” Art and Patrick compete for Tashi and wind up playing the final match against each other.

Still from Challengers. (Amazon / MGM)

I’m summarizing the story in a fairly coherent chronological fashion that isn’t at all the approach the film takes. You have to sit through endless flashbacks and flashforwards that are increasingly needless and unjustified by the narrative, until you think you’ll scream the next time you see a subtitle announcing that it’s “three weeks later” or “eight years earlier.” It’s a plot salad, pointlessly shredded, presumably to add some sort of kinetic energy to a fundamentally static situation. Why can’t they all just screw and get it over with, complete that three-way Tashi revved up early in the film before teasingly leaving the two men alone to complete what she started? Or not — either way. It’s the endless hanging around engaging in weak hostilities as a substitute for erotic encounters that’s so maddening.

The thing is, if I want to see a sick love triangle enacted, I’ll go for the real bar-nothing experience, like for instance, Gilda (1946). If I want to see a married couple torment each other, again, I’ll take the go-for-the-jugular version — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is an excellent example. But these pitiful, wimpy feints and sneers and dry-humping on offer by the three main characters in Challengers is strictly for the teenage set.

Fortunately for those trying to make money on this movie, though, practically everybody’s a teenager these days, or so it seems. Just read the gushy tittering featured in the staff discussion of the film in the Cut:

Brooke Marine, deputy culture editor: As I have mentioned to my friends and several colleagues here, which I’m sure they just love to keep hearing, I first saw this movie a few months ago, so I’ve been waiting on the edge of my seat to discuss. First, who would you rather: Art or Patrick?

Danielle Cohen, staff writer: I have to admit something. I don’t find Art attractive at all in this movie. . . .

Brooke M.: I’m not into blonds — except for Paul Newman. I am fully Josh O’Connor–pilled. . . . Art is also boring because he is less comfortable in his sexuality. At least Patrick was comfortable enough to tell Tashi, “Well, yes we jerked off next to each other one time and that’s fine!”

But at least the Cut gang got one thing right: there are empty gestures toward issues of race and class that never get taken on seriously in the film. The Tashi character occasionally expresses a moment of resentment toward the two wealthy white guys she’s involved with, implying a struggle with her own working-class black identity that we never see connected to anything she actually does.

Cat Zhang, culture writer: I thought they needed to explore the class dynamic more so we can understand Tashi’s drive to succeed. . . .

Brooke M.: Can we talk about “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys?” because that was an unnecessary line. This movie is apolitical. Race is not really a part of the equation in it so why did she say that unless it was to bait the internet into making memes out of the trailer, in which case, success I guess. . . .

A cynical approach to this film does seem like the right one. The whole movie’s a referendum on the hotness of Zendaya (Euphoria, Dune), both as a beautiful young woman and as a fast-ascending star. The torrid come-ons of the film are made more respectable by the earnest, empty race-class-gender-sexuality extras. Safe to say nobody’s going to see Challengers for the tennis.

Challengers is a test of Zendaya’s theatrical drawing power, and clearly she passes that test. It’s being sold on her image — the poster is a close-up of her face wearing mirrored sunglasses, with each of the two male tennis players she’s involved with occupying one of the lenses as they face off across the net. Zendaya made a very public appearance wearing that image silkscreened onto a mini-dress, and that’s a star move that seems appropriate.

As far as I can judge, she’s not a particularly talented actor, but she’s a compelling onscreen presence nevertheless, and so marvelous-looking, you can watch her attentively even while the mind dozes over yet another rote scene of tennis players in love trash-talking each other on and off the court.