Double fault: Challengers is as bad in the bedroom as it is on the tennis court

Double fault: Challengers is as bad in the bedroom as it is on the tennis court

I have spent the week and a half since seeing Challengers on the brink of throwing a racquet-trashing, expletive-scattering, McEnroe-style tantrum. Is Hawkeye working? Did they not see it? How, for an exhausting Mahut-Isner length of huffing and puffing, practically every single one of the wild swings taken by Luca Guadagnino’s film missed its target and landed out by a country mile? Four-star reviews? Five-star reviews? C’mon, fellow critics. You cannot be serious.

Some points I will concede as inarguable. The film is a box-office champion. And it’s pure fire on the internet, a movie more memeable than even the sainted Saltburn. There are clear generational issues in play: I can see why excitable younger viewers, raised on a largely sexless cinema, have fallen so hard for the film’s sprayed-on sweat and forceful faux sophistication. It’s my senior-tour colleagues I’m staring at with hands on hips, wearing an expression of disbelief. The film they’ve been politely applauding looks to me less a modern classic than another marker of American cinema’s ongoing infantilisation: a Muppet Babies redo of Jules and Jim.

Possibly some spectators were swayed by the spirit of indulgence fostered by the film’s on-screen umpire, handing out code violations as if they were candy. (In actual tennis, those breaches of court decorum have consequences: loss of whole games and matches. Not so in Luca-land.) Swallow those, and maybe you’ll also overlook how neither of the film’s male leads persuade as the whey-bulked jocks observed swaggering around America’s secondary tennis circuits. Even at their most drained, Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) resemble the gauche nerds of a thousand other teen comedies, sniggering at their own witless masturbation stories.

And then there is the Zendaya issue. Zendaya has been convincing in many guises in her young lifetime – brand ambassador, best dressed, a moving MJ amid the noisy mechanics of the Spider-Man movies – and remains one of our better qualified It girls. The upside of being an It girl is getting first dibs on every script doing the Hollywood rounds; the downside is landing roles for which you haven’t the comparable qualification – working mother, for example. The film admits as much, guiltily sneaking Tashi’s daughter Lily (AJ Lister) out of sight with a Bluey-loaded iPad. Make way for Uncle Luca’s Polysexual Fun Times, no strings attached.

Lily is where Challengers comprehensively lost everything for me: game, set and match. Yes, it’s going for zippy escapism, but even as recently as the late 20th century – the moment of 1988’s Bull Durham and 1996’s Tin Cup – one could imagine the studios backing a sports comedy about the very real struggles involved in balancing top-level competition, fame and parenting. (A film that better represented the challenges that, say, Serena Williams faced in the later years of her illustrious court career.) But Challengers isn’t interested in Lily, and seems barely more interested in her mother, save as a means to bring the boys together, and a horny crowd indoors.

Which brings us to the much-vaunted sex. Or Challengers’ limited idea of it, performative and cutesy as it looked to me: carefully choreographed and intimately coordinated, to the exclusion of genuine passion. I kiss you; you kiss me; now you two kiss each other. These are less sex scenes than exaggerated makeout sessions: kids playing spin-the-racquet. The fresh-faced fumbling of Challengers is that typically used to push khakis and cola in primetime promotional spots; much of the film, indeed, resembles a tennis-themed campaign for a fashion, jewellery or fragrance line. Sex still sells, even in this watered-down, 12A-adjacent form.

Guadagnino remains a great hype man, and his prodigious gift for overcompensation is almost enough to forgive him his many bad calls as a film-maker. Amid a climactic whirlwind, the movie’s abundant, self-generated hot air whips up every last fast-food wrapper dropped on an American sidewalk; he pummels us around the tennis court as if we had Slazenger stamped on our backsides. Here, at least, Challengers gets properly pornographic, with grabby angles and cuts, POV fist-pumping and a pounding (read: awful) Reznor-Ross score. The sweat drips like cum. But there’s no finesse or foreplay, no sign of a change-up or B-game: it’s Boris Becker in the broom cupboard, pre-bankruptcy. Boom boom; that’s your lot.

The agitated online tittle-tattle reflects a desire for more. How does this Justin Kuritzkes-scripted throuple relate to last year’s Past Lives, written and directed by Kuritzkes’ wife, Celine Song? Issues much? Yet Kuritzkes and Song clearly have something in common: a weakness for tissue-thin characters who barely hold water outside the context of their own sophomoric triangulations. Past Lives crafted elegantly empty vessels we had to fill with emotive memories of our own what-ifs; the hollow bodies of Challengers only assume fullness upon absorbing viewer lust. Never forget: Past Lives’ Kuritzkes surrogate authored a novel called Boner. Challengers’ punning title is also positioning, a play to be considered major and transgressive in what it depicts. But another title suggests itself: Balls.