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Laramie Movie Scope: Challengers

Disjointed, arty, sexy tennis film

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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May 1, 2024 – I went to see this because it is getting great reviews, but I was disappointed. True, Zendaya (“Dune” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home”) is great in this film as a very complicated woman in the middle of a very complicated lover's triangle (she is also a producer of this film) but where is this story supposed to be going? Does it really arrive anywhere?

The movie starts out in the middle of a tennis match and it ends in the middle of the same tennis match. The tennis match keeps getting stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, before the match finally ends in an abrupt, strange, somewhat inconclusive manner.

The film is like Billy Pilgrim in “Catch 22.” It is unstuck in time. It bounces around in time so much it requires subtitles to let the audience know what time period is being shown at any particular point in the movie. Basically it starts out with two good friends playing tennis doubles as partners, the carefree Patrick Zweig (played by Josh O'Connor of “La Chimera”) and the more reserved Art Donaldson (Mike Faist of “West Side Story”).

After winning their doubles match, they watch a woman's match. Both men are are instantly captivated by the women's champion, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya). They meet her at a party that night and Patrick invites her to his, and Art's, room. Both men are surprised when she shows up, and indicates she will have sex with the winner of an upcoming singles tennis match between Art and Patrick.

It turns out that the tennis match between Art and Patrick at the beginning of the film is actually years later in time after the three had originally met. In the following years, Tashi had a torrid affair with Patrick, but ended up married to Art, who becomes a champion tennis player. Tashi's own career as a player is cut short by injury, but she becomes Art's coach and manager, as well as his wife. Patrick becomes estranged from Tashi and Art. He is a tennis bum, living in his car and is ranked below 120th in the world.

While Tashi is a fierce competitor and is driven to win as a coach, Art has lost his edge and wants to retire from tennis. Tashi puts him into a tournament which he should win easily, hoping to get his competitive juices flowing and increase his confidence. Patrick enters the same tournament, hoping to win it and earn an automatic invite to the US Open. This situation results in emotional confrontations between the three old friends.

This lover's triangle would be complicated enough if all three were heterosexuals, but Art and Patrick seem to rank somewhere along the bisexual segment of the human sexual range. In one scene, Art and Patrick are seen passionately kissing each other in front of Tashi, so she is acutely aware of their mutual attraction from the beginning. While the motivations of Art and Patrick are pretty simple and straightforward, Tashi's motivations are complicated.

Tashi and Patrick are both dominant personalities, while Art is more submissive. There is some indication that this makes Art and Tashi (or Art and Patrick) a better match as a couple than Tashi and Patrick. However, this is not resolved because this is more of an art film. The sexual fluidity and ambiguity in the story, are very arty, as is the well-worn arty trick of tossing the story up into the air and slashing it off with a quick cut. The story doesn't land, or even a crash. We're just left hanging.

Leaving us hanging — does this make the story better? Is it a good artistic choice, or is it just an easy way of avoiding the work it would take to resolve these messy emotional conflicts? I suspect it is the latter, while fans of this story will no doubt argue the opposite. Life is messy, so that makes this movie more realistic. A neat resolution to these messy emotional conflicts would constitute a dreaded “Hollywood Ending.” It seems some people are satisfied with this kind of story, but I was disappointed. This movie rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2024 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)

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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]