Saturday, May 18, 2024

Review: Zendaya’s New Movie, “Challengers”: Fluid Sex, Full Frontal Flopping, Plus Bananas and Churros


You know director Luca Guadagnino. His last movie, “Bones and All,” was all about Taylor Russell and Timothee Chalamet feasting on their friends literally.

The director’s more famous offering was Chalamet and Armie Hammer, and a peach in “Call Me By Your Name,” set in Italy.

Now we come to “Challengers,” a triangular tennis romance in which Zendaya is the objection of lust and affection of two players having their own intense bromance. They are Josh O’Connor from “The Crown” and Mike Faist from “West Side Story.” The setting has moved from Tuscany to New Rochelle.

The boys are a pretty close couple, playing doubles and working their way around the tennis circuit, when they meet Zendaya’s Tashi. Their eyes pop out of their respective heads, and soon they’re all in bed together. Guadagnino meanwhile serves up lots of naked guys flopping around in the locker room. He’s also progressed from peaches to bananas, and churros in case you’re not paying attention.

The screenplay is a debut from Justin Kuritzkes, and it’s vexing. I’ve never seen so many chyrons in one film, as the action cuts back and forth in time with more abandon that a Christopher Nolan film. “Three Years Earlier,” “Eight Years Earlier,” “Two Days Ago.” I gave up trying to follow all that, despite Zendaya’s different hair lengths (thanks to some good wigs).

But “Challengers” — which should have been called “Love All” — has a lot going for it. The three main actors are effortlessly watchable, charming, and good looking. The music itself — from the Oscar winner Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — has the consistency of mesmerizing electronic disco that works on its own (but often drowns out the dialogue).

What Guadagnino does especially well in “Challengers,” surprisingly, are the tennis scenes. Credit cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and editor Marco Costa, who help the director find a new language in their sonic exploration of this racket. They make tennis so attractive you may see courts full this summer.

“Challengers” should be a hit. Full of sweat, longing, and haunches, the film hits the sweet spot for a key demo audience. Every generation gets a movie like this, hopefully, that will define their idea of romance in a troubled time.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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