‘Challengers’ review: Tennis, everyone? Zendaya keeps a juicy romantic triangle spinning

A little delirious and a lot of serious, witty, stylish fun, “Challengers” plays a beautiful game of Canadian doubles with its three main characters, on and off the court. It’s a purely enjoyable romantic drama, and the one thing people seem to agree on is its deft sidestepping of easy labels. Is it a screwball dramedy, as one writer put it? A sports movie dripping with competitive juices? Or simply that extremely rare thing in 2024 movies: an R-rated picture, written by a terrific first-time screenwriter, Justin Kuritzkes, not a sequel, not a Marvel, not much like anything we’ve seen lately in mainstream commercial filmmaking.

The director Luca Guadagnino continues his streak as one of contemporary cinema’s most florid sensualists, though it’s something of a shock, or a joke, to see the latest Guadagnino picture open with a comically drab establishing shot of New Rochelle, New York. It’s not exactly Milan or Lombardy, Italy, where Timotheé Chalamet and Tilda Swinton, respectively, found ecstasy among flora, fauna and tantalizing sexual partners in “Call Me By Your Name” (2017) and  “I Am Love” (2009). But this is the site of the second-tier challenger tennis match, where one-time phenom Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), now broke, is vying for a few thousand dollars in prize money.

Also vying, quite unexpectedly: Patrick’s longtime now-estranged friend and certified tennis champ Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), whose recent cold streak has brought him to New Rochelle to score a wildcard confidence boost prior to his U.S. Open bid. Art doesn’t love the idea, but he loves his cutthroat coach and wife, Tashi, a one-time teen tennis phenom. And the idea is hers. And she is played by Zendaya.

Without giving the whole game, set and match away “Challengers” starts with teasing questions not unlike those posed by the opening late-night bar scene in Celine Song’s “Past Lives” (Song is screenwriter Kuritzkes’ wife, and it’s delightful to see both halves of a screenwriting couple score with their feature debuts.) The year is 2019; we’re plunked into the middle of a tense winner-take-all match between Josh and Art, with Tashi keeping an eagle eye on both men. What are they to each other? What’s their history? From there, the movie begins jumping back in time, and forth, and then a little back, a little forth, spanning the characters’ college-age years to the present.

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor play rising and romantically entangled young tennis stars in “Challengers.” (MGM)

In the furthest-back scenes, the boys meet the superstar Tashi at a swank Long Island Adidas endorsement bash and are smitten in the time it takes to type the word “smitten.” In Art and Patrick’s hotel room later on, Tashi coaxes some pertinent information about their story, how they met (tennis camp, age 12), are they or were they ever lovers (no, but both script and direction in “Challengers” challenges any strict binary notions of the sexual continuum). She’s amused and enticed, a little, at her admirers’ insta-crushes on her, which leads to the story’s three-way spark.

From there it’s a crafty series of reveals, not in the murder-mystery or twist-ending sense, but in revealing what quieter, more reserved Art and brash, arrogant Patrick will do, and have done, to undermine each other’s chances with Tashi. As conceived by Kuritzkes, Zendaya’s character might’ve settled for caricature, ruthless manipulation incarnate — Svengali’s tennis coach, if Svengali played tennis.

But “Challengers” makes surprisingly dimensional sense of that she-wolf archetype, finessed and humanized by Zendaya. The role hands her a welcome change of pace, so she can ditch the narcotic “Dune” vibe for a couple of hours and dig into some tart, testy, sharp-witted scenes with Faist and O’Connor. The interplay is loose, yet exacting; it’s a pretty sexy movie, and Guadagnino films the key encounters in long, uninterrupted takes, the actors hinting at what’s going on underneath the surface dialogue. These people are not noble. Their relational scruples are optional. Their lives are racquets, balls and winning. They do what they need to do to get what they want.

The forth-and-back narrative chronology in “Challengers” proves more useful and engaging than it sounds. It keeps us guessing about motives and the dramatic equivalent of break points. On the court, Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom activate the rallies to varyingly delirious degrees, at one point turning the camera into the tennis ball, back-forth-back-forth-topspin-back. The Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross techno score drives the action. Is it all a bit much? Toward the end, key flashbacks unfold against the backdrop of a windstorm that just won’t quit, and Guadagnino cannot resist every possible screw-tightening suspense tactic in the final stages of the court battle.

That said: Even the excess has its payoffs, though I don’t know if audiences will swing with the degree of ambiguity going on with the final seconds of this exuberant, eccentric horndog of a movie. I also don’t care much. It’s one of the essential titles of the year so far, if only for its sheer kinetic assurance.

“Challengers” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity)

Running time: 2:11

How to watch: Premieres in theaters Fri. April 26

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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