‘Challengers’ presents Zendaya in a sexy triangle where love means nothing

‘Challengers’ presents Zendaya in a sexy triangle where love means nothing

In tennis, “love” means nothing. Love also has little to do with “Challenger,” which uses the sport as a backdrop to present a complex, nonlinear psychological triangle that proves convoluted and enticing for most of the match, before committing a double-whammy by sniffing at the end.

Seduction and sex are once again at the heart of this film from “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino, who also throws in twists of fate, the road not taken and – in the case of the main character played by Zendaya – a burning desire to win and control people around him, exploring how the elite athlete’s mentality flows into his personal life.

The framing device is a singles match between Art (“West Side Story’s” Mike Faist), a decorated superstar who may be nearing the end, at least in his mind, of his championship-winning career; and Patrick (“The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor), who arrive at an off-track tournament where they end up dealing with a broken-down car that, financial as it is, serves as his hotel room.

Flashing back 13 years, we discover that the two were teammates as teenage tennis players when they first set their eyes – out of their heads almost cartoonishly – on Tashi (Zendaya), a rising star whose game arouses lust. The same. them as his attractive appearance.

In the present day, Tashi is Art’s wife and trainer, having lost her own career to a devastating knee injury. But it’s quite clear that she lives through him – she states it openly, saying, “I’m playing for both of us” – which only makes how she ends up with him, as well as the result of Art and Patrick’s (very ) protracted match, more interesting. While sexual tension plays a central role in the film (and certainly the film’s marketing), “The Challenger” is equally about blurring the lines between sex and the seductive power of mass sports, with victory and success as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Also, both man/boys are pretty transparent about what they want, Tashi remains a source of mystery, in part because of the unscheduled detours his career has forced him to take.

After the good young cannibal romance “Bones and All,” Guadagnino, working from a script by playwright Justin Kuritzkes, occupies more conventional and commercial territory here, while doing everything he can to have sex the way he filmed a tennis sequence.

Despite the zoom angle and whizzing balls, there’s no escaping many of those scenes, especially for anyone who hasn’t been to the entire US Open or Wimbledon final. Despite using the sport as a metaphor, “Challenger” may be a bit of a challenge for those who attend eager to see the principal sweat for different reasons.

Because she plays a more complicated angle, Tashi Zendaya is the most interesting character as well as the source of frustration. Then again, the details of the three main characters remain somewhat vague thanks in part to the structure, though all are prone to the occasional racket-mangling frenzy.

While the collection proved effective, the results just felt too precious, in a very unsatisfying way. That misstep didn’t undo this neatly choreographed match, but in tennis terms, it was the kind of unforced error that kept Guadagnino’s latest from being listed as an unqualified winner.

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