"Challengers" Source: Mubi

Review: 'Challengers' Serves a Slick, Toxic Love Triangle

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 3 MIN.

They say "three's a crowd," but what about in the case of a toxic love triangle where everyone is attracted to each other?

Zendaya stars in queer filmmaker Luca Guadanino's romance sports drama "Challengers," along with Josh O'Connor and Mike Faist (good as Riff in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story"), with a screenplay written by Justin Kuritzkes.

Tashi (Zendaya) is an ambitious former tennis star who, after an injury, coaches her famous tennis player husband, Art (Mike Faist), who's on a losing streak. They're a power couple in the sports world. Tashi orchestrates a "challengers" match for Art to boost his confidence, which leads him to run into his former best friend and Tashi's ex-boyfriend, Patrick (Josh O'Connor), a struggling tennis player.

Tashi is ferociously driven and fiercely competitive, singularly propelled by tennis. Even during foreplay, all she talks about is tennis. Tashi's toddler daughter comments that the only subject her parents discuss is tennis. The character showcases Zendaya's range as an actor, as this role diverges from her other work. I love her performances in "Euphoria," the "Spider-Man" movies, and "Dune." Assertive and in control, Tashi ruthlessly doesn't let anyone get in her way. It's refreshing to see such a likable actress in a vicious role. While it's solid acting, I wish we got even more complexity in the character to elevate her performance further.

Regarding the hyped threesome, it's really more of a tease. Tashi initiates things as she kisses Patrick and Art. As they then each kiss her neck, she slowly backs away, until Patrick and Art passionately kiss each other, reveling in the moment. She enjoys watching her orchestration. As quickly as it commences, she abruptly leaves.

Patrick seems to be bi. A quick flash of a dating app appears to have women and men. He seems to be very physically attracted to both Art and Tashi. While he talks to Art about Tashi being the hottest woman he's ever seen, and he and Tashi have a romantic relationship, Patrick's energy feels completely different towards Art. A spark ignites there, a playfulness and joy that doesn't seem to exist for the character outside of his rapport with Art.

The film jumps back and forth in time as we learn about the characters meeting, Tashi's romantic relationships with each, and Patrick and Art's close friendship and rivalry. It all builds up to the tennis match showdown between Patrick and Art.

None of these characters are particularly "good." All are plagued by infidelity, ruthlessness, or a tendency to undermine each other's relationships. Not that characters need to embrace morality or likability (whatever that means, as it's so subjective) in order to be interesting. But that's the thing: I didn't really find any of them all that compelling. (Or perhaps I was bored by all of the tennis.)

Despite my criticisms, there's something intriguing about the insularity of this trio. They all belong to this toxic triad. Each of them finds their way to each other. We rarely see them on screen with anyone else. All three revolve in each other's orbits. I wish we had seen even more overt queerness and an exploration of a polyamorous throuple. Considering all the on-screen lusting, I wish I felt more allure and desire. While containing good facets, ultimately, "Challengers" oozes style but not necessarily a lot of substance.

The film's music does a lot of the heavy lifting, rather than the writing or performances. Propulsive, rhythmic, and intense, the excellent electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross often overwhelms, as if swallowing the characters and story.

The glossy, stylized cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom ("Memoria" and Guadagnino's "Suspiria" and "Call Me by Your Name") showcases lots of dripping sweat on the characters' glistening bodies (whether playing tennis or basking in a sauna), and sometimes shows gimmicky point-of-view shots of the tennis ball.

While "Challengers" lacks the tenderness amidst trauma in "Bones and All," the riveting spectacle of "Suspiria," and the heartbreaking core of "Call Me by Your Name" – three films I love – it retains Guadagnino's signature striking visuals and immersive atmosphere. It's a very slick-looking – and sounding – yet superficial film with polished aesthetics. And sometimes that's okay! Vibes are good!

"Challengers" opens in theaters on Friday, April 26.

by Megan Kearns

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