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Movie Review: "Challengers"

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Since “Challengers” begins practically at the end of its story, I think I’ll begin this review by talking about the movie’s ending. It ends, as we see in early scenes and is pretty predictable anyway, with feuding tennis stars Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) playing against each other in the finals of a tournament, with Art’s wife Tashi (Zendaya) watching from the stands. While ultimately one player will have to win and one will have to lose, the real winners are fans of great tennis. As with the match, “Challengers” doesn’t concern itself with things like results and fate, it just wants to give you a thrill in getting there.

The 2019 match between Art and Patrick is a framing device that we see throughout the film, but the story is mostly told through flashbacks, not all necessarily told in order. We go as far back as 2006 when Art and Patrick were doubles champions and best friends. They found themselves both smitten with up-and-comer Tashi, and they invited her back to their shared hotel room. A minor conflict arose when the two couldn’t work out who between them would get some alone time with Tashi. They figured that she’d give an indication of who she’d prefer, but Tashi…didn’t pick a side. Maybe it’s just me reading too much into things, but I think the film’s advertising has implied that more happens in the ensuing encounter. It’s just a makeout scene with Tashi promising her phone number to the winner of an upcoming match between the two.

Patrick wins the match and Tashi’s phone number, and he soon turns pro with Tashi as his girlfriend. Tashi and Art both attend Stanford with plans to turn pro after college, but also have some additional skills if tennis doesn’t work out. A jealous Art engineers a fight between Patrick and Tashi, and although he didn’t intend it to go quite so far, he’s the only one there to comfort Tashi when she suffers a career-ending injury on the court.

Years later, Art has become an international superstar with Tashi as his wife and coach (though their marriage is hanging by a thread), while Patrick’s career and life have deteriorated so badly that he’s living out of his car. Apparently too much time away from Tashi will do that to a man. Art and Patrick both have to win this small-time tournament, Art to gain momentum going into the U.S. Open, Patrick to resurrect his fledgling career. Of course, they’re really battling over Tashi all over again, as well as trying to one-up each other.

I mentioned this movie wanting to give its viewers a thrill on par with the intense final tennis match. After the early stages culminating in the scene in the hotel room, the movie pairs off Art, Patrick, and Tashi in combinations of two for the rest of the movie. The three banter, argue, and manipulate one another in a series of scenes whose snappiness is worthy of the comparison to a well-contested match. It’s not exactly a nail-biting intensity, but the three keep up with each other in a complimentary fashion.

Where “Challengers” fell apart for me (aside from my inability to understand tennis scoring, so I kept thinking the climactic match was over when it wasn’t, which affected the movie’s momentum) was the utter un-likeability of the three main characters. Yes, they have good chemistry, but that’s just another way of saying that these miserable people all deserve one another. It’s one thing to cultivate conflicting opinions about who to root for because it makes for a lively debate. But did the movie have to make me wish that all three characters could lose somehow? I read an interview with Mike Faist where he described the characters’ dynamic as “everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong.” Ironically he’s only right about the “everyone’s wrong” part.

Grade: C

“Challengers” is rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and graphic nudity. Its running time is 131 minutes.