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Feisty Challengers serves up a winning volley of competitive melodramatic excess

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There's a great moment in Challengers that's like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon crossed with a 1940s Bette Davis melodrama. Former best friends and tennis doubles partners Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) — facing off in the finale of a US Open challenger tournament — are in the middle of a heated point. The camera starts with a wide shot showing both players batting the ball back and forth, and in the background are the grandstands full of people excitedly watching the action.

Slowly, director Luca Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom begin to zoom in, focusing on that audience. Everyone's heads zip back and forth, the loud thwack! of the ball signaling each player's powerful hit. But as we inch closer, we notice that the person in the center does not follow along. Art's wife and coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) — a former superstar player whose career was cut short by injury — angrily stares straight into the camera, and even behind her dark designer sunglasses, we can see the Machiavellian wheels turning inside her head as she ponders whether or not her best-laid plans will bear fruit.


There are layers within layers to Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes's explosive, adrenaline-filled character study, bending backward and forward through time as it intimately examines this crazy, messed-up love triangle. It is a sweltering examination of determination, commitment, competition, friendship, betrayal, and athletics, each swat of a tennis racket signifying a new turn in the proceedings that could have devastating consequences for Tashi, Art, or Patrick (or all of the above), depending on how well the metaphorical ball has been struck.

It's also sexy as hell. The threesome ignites the screen with their chemistry. Their meet-cute at a US Open party (the night before amateur doubles champions Art and Patrick are supposed to meet in the singles final) is a seductively whimsical treat. Things move from there to a hotel room shared by the two friends, and it's instantly apparent how easily Tashi can bend both guys to her whims. She toys with them like a cat playfully pawing at a mouse, and the only question is when she'll quit teasing, extend her claws, and start drawing blood.


From there we move all over the court. There are snippets of Tashi and Art's playing days on the Stanford tennis team. There are visits from Patrick, his professional career having its fair share of ups and downs. Suddenly were thrust forward post-Tashi's injury, when she and Art are now married with a daughter, and his professional career — only needing that darned title to complete the Grand Slam! — inching closer to a conclusion. As for Patrick, he's out of their lives (and almost out of tennis), the former top-ten player relegated to participating in one challenger tournament after another in hopes of maybe, just maybe, qualifying for another major.

It is at one of those minor events where the three are unceremoniously thrust back together. Art has been struggling, so Tashi pulls some strings to get him into a small tune-up tournament a week before the US Open, neither of them having the first clue Patrick would also be competing. Now the two men are in the final, and all of the dramatics that have pushed them apart and placed Tashi angrily between them for over a decade are just fuel for the competitive fire burning up the court they're playing on.

Don't try and make sense out of any of this. These people are a conjoined mass of contradictions, and although one second a person could be forgiven for thinking that Tashi is the villain, a scene later Patrick does something unforgivable or Art performs a selfish act of subterfuge that causes a reevaluation of who is who and what is what. Their lives are all equally messy. Each loves. Each hates. Each has big dreams, and all have had some of them tragically crushed one way or another.

As much as I love it when Guadagnino shakes things up with bloodily metaphorical horror-drama-romance hybrids like Bones and All and his Suspiria remake, I think I adore the director most when he gets his melodramatic beast on and channels his inner Douglas Sirk or Luchino Visconti. I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, Call Me by Your Name — these are wet, gloopy, sensuous delights. You can feel Guadagnino's glee in how he brings actors like Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, or Timothée Chalamet to sweaty, sun-drenched life.

With Challengers, he has three titans to toy with, and Faist, O'Connor, and Zendaya (delivering the best performance of her still young career, even topping her spellbinding turn in Dune: Part Two) are all willing to do whatever is asked of them. They are a fierce and feisty triumvirate. Sometimes comedic, in other moments withdrawn and sullen, each digs into their respective character with tenacity and relish. They fly through an avalanche of emotional nuances with the bat of an eyelash, each actor making the sort of indelible impression. It's impossible to imagine that this film would have been even remotely as successful without all of them.

Mukdeeprom, working with Guadagnino for a third time, moves his camera as it were a tennis ball and generates a visually blissful whirligig that matches the interior complexities of the characters with beauteous precision. Editor Marco Costa (Bones and All) cuts it all together with similar and purposefully bewildering relish, and there were moments I almost wondered if things were getting too frenetic and pondered what might happen if Guadagnino had allowed his technical team to tone things down.

And don't even get me started on the rapturously unhinged score by Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Soul, The Social Network). It's magnificent.

Guadagnino has made several outstanding motion pictures. I've pretty much loved them all. But Challengers is something truly special. I'm going to cherish this one for a very long time. Here's hoping ticket-buying audiences feel the same.