Movie review: 'Challengers' makes Zendaya love triangle absurd

From left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor star in "Challengers." Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
1 of 5 | From left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor star in "Challengers." Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

LOS ANGELES, April 12 (UPI) -- Challengers, in theaters April 26, purports to be a sexy, intense romance between three tennis players. Instead, its intensity only makes the film and its characters look ridiculous.

In 2019, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) ends up in a match against Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor). Flashbacks reveal that Art and Patrick used to play doubles on the same team and were best friends when they met Tashi (Zendaya).


Tashi was the most promising tennis prospect before she even went to college, but a scar on her knee in 2019 indicates why she no longer plays. She married Art and they have a daughter together, but that is not a simple backstory, either.

The flashbacks are where Challengers begins to fall apart. It's one thing to start close to the present and then go back to the beginning but Challengers goes overboard with flashbacks.


Some flashbacks only go one to two weeks earlier in 2019 and then 12 years earlier, which is one year after the trio met. Then it's three years after that, so the audience has to do math to figure out when they are in the story.

It's jarring enough when the film flashes back 13 years in mid-match, but the time jumps become absurd. It gets to the point where the film returns to 2019 for one scene and then flashes back to earlier in the week in 2019.

Regardless, telling the story out of order doesn't make it any less trite. A girl comes between two friends, not that the men don't each betray each other. too.

Tashi dates Patrick first, but blames him for her injury because they had a fight before that match -- a fight that Tashi started. Art is there for Tashi after her injury, but it's not as simple as Tashi marrying him instead.

It takes years for them to cross paths again, and she keeps running into Patrick over that time. One bisexual scene promises there may be something more to Challengers, but after that, it's all conventionally heteronormative.

If the story were strong, it could be told in any order effectively. Challengers wants the audience to take tennis as seriously as its characters do, but blows the one scene that's meant to relate to non-athletes.


Tashi describes tennis as a relationship in which she and her opponent truly know each other. That seems more designed to justify the way Art and Patrick manipulate each other during their match than any honest connection on the court.

The best sports movies appeal to universal themes, whether the viewer is a fan or not. Challengers is not really an underdog story, but not all sports movies are.

Field of Dreams used baseball as a placeholder for a family activity, but there's no metaphor in Challengers. It's superficially about winning and resolving an old rivalry.

A superficial victory story could be fine, too, if it's well done, but the characters' intensity becomes embarrassing. Surely, it is accurate to some obsessive athletes who neglect their personal relationships, but those athletes need help, not a movie about them.

Much of the dialogue in Challengers is mumbled. Scenes in stadium hallways, dorm rooms or bars are unintelligible, and others are drowned out by a throbbing score.

Judging by the lines that are clear, perhaps drowning out the rest was a favor. Comparing a partner to a racquet with private parts, or comparing an inaccurate serve to suicide sounds more like posers playing at intense trash talk than authentic shop talk.


The portrayal of tennis matches starts out well, but also becomes overblown. Simulating the camera from the ball's perspective doesn't really help follow the match, especially when the camera turns upside down in the air.

Zendaya has the footwork on the court. Faist and O'Connor look like they put in the work, but the film sabotages them.

The final match draws out obvious reveals in slow motion at the point at which they should get on with it at the two-hour mark.

If Challengers were more fun, it possibly could be treated as trashy camp. While undoubtedly provocative, Challengers is all talk and no follow-through.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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