‘Challengers’ Review: Game, Set, Love Matches

You can always feel the filmmaker Luca Guadagnino trying to turn you on — he’s a zealous seducer. His movies are sleek divertissements about ravishing people and their often sumptuously rarefied sensibilities and worlds. I tend to like his work, even if it can be overly art-directed and feel too (excuse the verb) curated to stir the soul along with my consumer lust. I am moved when a father tenderly comforts his son in “Call Me by Your Name”; my most vivid memories of “A Bigger Splash” is its striking setting and a dress that Tilda Swinton wears.

Guadagnino’s latest, “Challengers,” is about a continually changing love triangle involving two besotted men and a sharp, beautiful woman with killer instincts and personal style. Largely set in the world of professional tennis, it is a fizzy, lightly sexy, enjoyable tease of a movie, and while someone suffers a bad injury and hearts get broken (or at least banged up), for the most part it’s emotionally bloodless. Even so, it’s a welcome break in tone and topic after Guadagnino’s Grand Guignol adventures in “Suspiria,” a take on a Dario Argento horror film, and “Bones and All,” about two pretty cannibals hungrily and moodily adrift.

Written by the novelist and playwright Justin Kuritzkes, “Challengers” is fairly straightforward despite its self-consciously tortured narrative timeline. It tracks three tennis prodigies — friends, lovers and foes — across the years through their triumphs and defeats, some shared. When it opens, the troika’s one-time brightest prospect, Tashi (Zendaya), has been retired from playing for a while and is now coaching her husband, Art (Mike Faist), a Grand Slam champ rapidly spiraling downward. In a bid to reset his prospects (he’s a valuable property, for one), he enters a challenger match, a kind of minor-league event where lower-ranking professionals compete, including against injured higher-ranking players.

That match takes place in New Rochelle, N.Y., an easy drive from Flushing, Queens, and the home of the U.S. Open, which Art has yet to win. It’s while in New Rochelle that he and Tashi dramatically reconnect with Patrick (Josh O’Connor), the errant member of their complicated three-way entanglement. A rich boy who cosplays as poor (well, at least struggling), Patrick met Art when they were children at a tennis academy. By 18, they were tight friends and perhaps something more; the movie coyly leaves just how close to your imagination, even as it fires it up. It’s at that point that they met Tashi, then a fast-rocketing star.

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