Review: In the sexy, adrenalized 'Challengers,' tennis competitors don't skimp on the foreplay

The French monks who invented tennis nine centuries ago must be blushing that Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” exposes their sport (jeu de paume, or “game of the palm”) as one reeking of sexual frustration. The eroticism starts with the racquet. Firm on one end, yielding on the other, its very parts — the shaft, throat, head, rim, butt — are named with a wink-wink. There’s a moment in “Challengers” when a player places his fuzzy ball in the throat of his racquet and you know exactly what he means.

Then there’s the sweat and, sweatier still, the sounds of athletes who let go of any sense of shame as they grunt, huff, pant, shriek and curse. For Zendaya’s fearsome Tashi Duncan, pure tennis is when she becomes so engrossed in the movement of her limbs that the rest of the world disappears. In her moments of climactic victory, Tashi screams. Her excitement is intense. You can’t look away.

Guadagnino specializes in movies about obsessives who spend the running time turning you on to their kinks, whether they are dance, song, bloodsucking, sex, more sex, or tennis and sex, which here become pretty much the same thing. Guadagnino’s healthy appreciation for compulsions has, in turn, made audiences fixated with him. “Call Me by Your Name” struck a nerve because it wasn’t just handsome shots of Timothée Chalamet gazing longingly at Armie Hammer — it also showed the boy sneaking away to sniff Hammer’s swim trunks. That Oscar-nominated film is far more gentle and sincere than “Challengers,” a trim, naughty, ferociously well-acted trifle about characters more likely to scrawl something foul on a bathroom stall than quote Heraclitus. It lacks the control of Guadagnino’s earlier work — or rather, I should say, it takes subtlety and restraint and thwacks them over the fence and into the bushes.

The script, by Justin Kuritzkes, vaults back and forth across a 13-year time span during which our three leads mature from 18 to 31 (physically, at least). Tashi is the prize of never-ending competition between two tennis camp bunkmates: Patrick (Josh O’Connor), the vagabond who scores first, and Art (Mike Faist), the try-hard who wins her hand in marriage. But Tashi, the best player of the three, controls the game. She thrives on the boys’ rivalry and claims that the tension benefits their tennis too. Only the film doesn’t force us to believe her, or even believe that anyone in this love triangle genuinely loves each other at all. Kuritzkes is married to filmmaker Celine Song, whose loosely autobiographical “Past Lives” was also about a woman in a three-way tangle who wonders if she chose the right man. I will not speculate on the inner workings of anyone’s marriage; I’ll just say these two films would make a stimulating double feature.

Tennis is all that matters. Nothing else is worthy of discussion, unless it’s coded in tennis advice. Tashi, Art and Patrick aren’t complete characters. We care nothing about their family, friends or lives beyond the court. Even when the film detours to Tashi and Art’s freshman year at Stanford, you remain unconvinced that either could name a book. But these aren’t full people, not even toward the young daughter (A.J. Lister) who gets waved away with promises that her parents will spend time with her after they’re done talking about tennis. (“But you’re always talking about tennis,” the girl sighs, a line she’ll probably repeat to her therapist.) On the rare occasion the script has the actors say something that’s not directly about the game, it’s a whiff, like a gag that Kuritzkes lifts from that infamous Han and Leia exchange in “The Empire Strikes Back.” (“I love you.” “I know.”)

The film starts in the characters’ present with Art and Patrick facing off at the 2019 Phil’s Tire Town Challenge in New Rochelle, N.Y., a surprisingly rinky-dink backdrop for all of the fraught flashbacks to come. But the humility is apt. Art, the star of the two, is a sinking whale in need of confidence, according to the sports newscasters who clumsily announce his arc in the background of an opening scene. Art boasts a personal massage therapist, a refrigerator of cold-pressed juices, a line of his own personalized racquets and a wife who doubles as his business manager and coach. Patrick is a single, chain-smoking never-was who scavenges leftover bagels, sleeps in his car and gets shut down when he attempts to trade an autographed racquet for the deposit on a motel room.

We assume we’re meant to root for the underdog. But to the film’s credit, O’Connor plays Patrick more like a coyote, a starving creature you pity on the street but don’t trust anywhere near your pussycat. Patrick doesn’t value his talent and he doesn’t respect the game; in turn, the film never respects him. As Patrick lopes through the film intruding into people’s space with his strength and his shameless habit of stealing their snacks (and dropping his shorts), Guadagnino over-indulges in close-ups of O’Connor scrunching up his mouth in a put-on smirk. Guadagnino splices in his smug smile so much that we get sick of it, and maybe that’s the idea: Patrick’s charm is losing its appeal. So how’s this animal going to survive?

Meanwhile, Art’s high-pressure success has him exhausted. Marrying his dream girl has left him as empty as a trophy cup drained of champagne.

Languid piano scales capture the hypnotic effect Tashi has on both men. More often, though, “Challengers” punctuates scenes with an aggressive electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which is fantastic but only intermittently seems to have anything to do with what’s onscreen. The heavy beats work best as a metronome for the tennis fans in the stands whipping their heads between volleys, although for a while, I was half-convinced that they were also the hold music filling Art’s head whenever his wife wasn’t lecturing him about his game.

Really, though, I think Guadagnino is just having fun, especially when the feeling of that heaving pulse becomes even more important than the dialogue. Some conversations don’t even try to be heard over the racket. Instead, they take on that crunchy, echo-y sound of movie quotes swallowed up into club music, like how that George Michael track “Too Funky” spliced in a sample of “The Graduate’s” Anne Bancroft purring, “Would you like me to seduce you?”

Likewise, the visual style is so attention-grabbing that the cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, appears to have been told to cross off every technique: freeze-frames, slow motion, character dissolves, extreme sweat droplet closeups, riveting long takes where the acting glows. The camera is above the court, underneath the court, in the way of the ball, on the ball, on the racquet. The shot list must look like the Kama Sutra. The only coherent statement is excess.

Yet, Zendaya’s performance slices through the noise. Her Tashi is all length — long arms, long legs, long braid — with a ferocious little chin set in anger. If rage was packaged like Wheaties, she’d be on the box. She gets the funniest, meanest comebacks and holds the screen like a woman in command, even when she allows the film to leer. Guadagnino introduces her in a rump-centric shot that recalls the “Athena Girl,” that bestselling 1970s calendar photo of a tennis jock scratching her bare bottom. Tashi, of course, would never be so slobbish toward the sport she adores. Her zeal for tennis and all the boiling-over passions it inspires is so compelling that only as the big game comes to its finish and the film’s pacing is slowed down to an irritating crawl did I realize I still had no idea how a tennis match is scored. Tashi would consider that the biggest betrayal of all.

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