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‘Challengers’ Review: Too Hot to Handle Itself

Dir. Luca Guadagnino — 3 Stars

Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in "Challengers," directed by Luca Guadagnino
Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in "Challengers," directed by Luca Guadagnino By Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
By Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

Luca Guadagnino’s newest film is, to put it simply, hot. “Challengers” uses the game of tennis as a stand-in for a three-way relationship between pro players Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), and Art’s wife Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). Their romance is intense and competitive, almost like a particularly high-stakes tennis match. The film follows this trio’s history from their not-so-humble beginnings to the zenith of their careers, all the while exploring how their relationship dynamics change over time. “Challengers” is bold and witty, but it ultimately bites off more than it can chew, leaving it a bit too hot to handle by the time it reaches its conclusion.

The tone of “Challengers” is surprisingly light, despite its scandalous romantic plot. While the sexy romance scenes are the focal points of the movie, its script is the most compelling when it takes itself less seriously. Alongside abundant humor, the film emphasizes that its main characters’ conflicts unfold against a backdrop of complete privilege. The underlying silly streak grants “Challengers” a freshness not often found in the ultra-serious sports genre.

While the script tends toward the funny, the cast of “Challengers” approaches their roles with the utmost commitment. Zendaya takes control of her role as a fierce tennis player who seizes what she desires, no matter the costs, perfectly encapsulating the dark underbelly of Tashi’s actions. Similarly, Josh O’Connor imbues Patrick Zweig — a washed-up tennis pro vying for Tashi’s love — with an excellent degree of nuance. The makeup crew must be lauded for their excellent work in bringing these actors’ performances to life — the three main characters switch from their early high school years to their late thirties beautifully. The youthful makeup is notably realistic, with Art’s transformation appearing so convincing that viewers might just check the credits to see if a second actor existed for his early scenes.

While the acting is well done and the costuming spectacular, “Challengers” is thrown completely off-balance by its editing. The film often places awkward and distracting cuts in the middle of performances. As Tashi grapples with her injury in an intimate scene, for instance, the scene cuts between two shots of her crying, disrupting the flow of the moment and breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Furthermore, the editing also causes certain scenes to feel overdone. Many scenes include extensive use of slow motion, ostensibly to make the tennis scenes feel epic — but this instead results in overwrought, tacky sequences. The tennis playing often reads more like an Adidas commercial than a film.

The editing is not helped by the ostentatious camerawork. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography in “Challengers” was simply too much — which is surprising, since when Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom teamed up for the iconic film “Call Me By Your Name,” the camera work was gentle, subtle, and stunning. Meanwhile, “Challengers” is so bold with its camera work to the point of brashness. Experimental cinematography — including first-person perspectives from the tennis players, camera shots from the tennis ball’s point of view, and Wes Anderson-style symmetrical composition — clashed to make an incohesive experience.

“Challengers” takes on a little more than it can handle. While its script is intriguing, it tries to differentiate itself from the sports genre too dramatically with technical elements and shockingly sexual subplots. It asks you to care about both relationships and tennis to the same degree, all the while launching experimental camera work and editing at the viewer. While it’s entertaining to see hot people bicker over each other, it’s also exhausting to take in all of these elements at the same time. “Challengers” doesn’t quite score when it needs to, although the game it plays is still fun to watch nonetheless.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at

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