‘Challengers’: Luca Guadagnino’s homoerotic flick is compelling but fails to live up to its potential

From left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers.’
From left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers.’ (Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

There is a real homoerotic vibe throughout gay director Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers.” The sexual tension between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) — friends turned competitors on the tennis court and off — drips like the sweat off their athletic bodies. A scene of the guys in the sauna is as sticky as their rivalry. Moreover, the film is full of phallic imagery, most notably when Patrick takes a bite of Art’s churro. “Challengers” rarely goes for subtlety, which makes it ticklishly amusing. 

The film opens in 2019 when Art is playing against Patrick at an event that will either help Art regain his confidence if he wins, or help Patrick qualify for the tournament circuit if he wins. The drama then whipsaws back and forth to various key moments in the lives of these two men and Tashi (Zendaya), the woman they both love. This narrative strategy does the story no favors; it would have benefitted from just being told linearly. 

Art and Patrick have played together since they were 12. When the guys are in their late teens, they are both smitten with the backhand (among other assets) of a top female player, Tashi. She is not just a better athlete, but also smarter than both guys. Watching the young men moon over Tashi is charming, and when she visits them both in their shared hotel room one night, she initiates a threesome that ends with the guys kissing each other. 

But as Art and Patrick compete for Tashi’s attention, both tennis racquets and hearts are broken. At the start of the film, Tashi is married to Art, as well as being his coach. In contrast, Patrick is broke, single and living out of his car. As flashbacks reveal, Tashi was with Patrick initially, but more flashbacks explain what transpired in the ensuing years and why the guys are no longer speaking to each other. 

The script by Justin Kuritzkes does not flesh out the characters or the action enough to have viewers rooting for Art over Patrick or vice versa, which is a drawback. As engrossing as the film is, Tashi is the winner, in part because she gets all the best lines. Tashi even knows what Art and Patrick are doing wrong on and off the court, which leads to a dramatic plot involving Patrick asking her to coach him so he can become a better player. But Tashi is savvy, sizing these little boys up and manipulating them to achieve by promising to love the one who comes out on top in a match. 

From left, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in ‘Challengers.’ (Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Yet it feels like Tashi does not belong with either guy. Art — with whom she shares a life, a child and career — is in a slump, and she hates seeing him suffer and struggle. Meanwhile, Patrick’s athletic promise may be past its sell-by date and his arrogance is unattractive. Her choice between these two underachieving men really suggests they would be better together, and she would be better off alone. It’s clear to see what the guys see in Tashi; it is unclear why Tashi loves them. And this may be why Guadagnino plays up their homoerotic bromance; the central love triangle is faulty.

“Challengers” also lets the action on the court dictate the relationships. While the tennis scenes are compelling, what transpires dramatically holds few surprises as too much is telegraphed early and that often softens the impact. In addition, there are not many romantic scenes, which will be disappointing for viewers expecting more love off the court. A scene of Art asking Tashi to hold him as he falls asleep is as emotional as the guys hugging after a match. But Guadagnino does not play up the passions. 

To the film’s credit, viewers do not need to know much about tennis to appreciate “Challengers,” and the sports scenes are entertaining to watch. One sequence featuring the camera as the ball is almost dizzying. Guadagnino puts an interesting spin on the action from an opening volley between Patrick and Art grunting and hitting the ball with force. And much of the film is set to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ driving techno beat, which adds to the energy. 

Even if the plot feels thin, and the narrative shaky as the film bounces back and forth in time, the performances breathe life into “Challengers.” Mike Faist captures the intensity and emotional pain Art brings to his relationship and his game, and he is well matched with Josh O’Connor who knows how to needle his friend by saying or doing something inappropriate. O’Connor develops a nice frisson with both his co-stars that keeps the film lively. But Zendaya delivers the ace here, slinking through the film in stylish outfits and always speaking her truth. 

“Challengers” is compelling, but like its two attractive male protagonists, it fails to live up to its potential. 

“Challengers” opens April 26 in theaters.

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