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In junket interviews with Zendaya, the young actress comes across as one of the bubbliest and breeziest stars to ever make it in Tinsel Town. And yet on screen, she has mostly played sour, brooding characters, like her stoic fighter in the DUNE films, her forlorn wife in MALCOLM & MARIE, or her drug-addicted teen in HBO’s series EUPHORIA. Zendaya has a few moments of joie de vivre in the new love story CHALLENGERS but mostly she glowers as its villain. Hers is a mean, nasty turn that doesn’t ask for much sympathy in director Luca Guadagnino’s latest film. As she lords her cunning power over two susceptible tennis pros (Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist), becoming more domineering each minute onscreen, Zendaya aces her part. Unfortunately, the film too often works against her performance with its comical, over-the-top camera work, frenetic editing, and shallow script by screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes. The movie is never dull, but it frustrates throughout in its unwillingness to match Zendaya’s clear-eyed approach.

Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a newbie tennis star who can’t help but attract the attention of fellow up-and-comers Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Faist). Patrick and Art are also best friends, and when they’re not drooling over Tashi’s leggy physique and too-cool-for-school swagger, they admire her take-no-prisoners playing style on the court. She’s a tigress in the form of an antelope, both on the court and off, as the two infatuated men will soon realize.

Not long after meeting them, Tashi invites both men up to her hotel room during a tennis tourney, and it isn’t long before she’s making out with them both. As their lust gets the best of them, she slyly exits, leaving Patrick and Art making out with each other. The moment is filled with portent; are Art and Patrick gay or are their true passions for each other instead of her? It’s a fascinating plot development that the film fails to fully explore for the rest of its narrative and it’s the first of the film’s many faults.

The filmmakers seem to lose their nerve frequently, just as the story should be digging deeper. Eventually, Tashi first beds and dates Patrick, and eventually, the same with Art. She even marries Art, but the script doesn’t show us much of what made either of her relationships with the guys work. Instead, the script focuses only on the deteriorating moments of each coupling, breezing past anything positive that would let an audience invest in either pairing.

What the film seems interested in mostly is how the triangle affects the game of Patrick and Art, turning every bump in their personal lives into the trauma that will be played out on the court. That’s too simplistic and as chunks of characterization are left wanting, the three start to devolve into types: Tashi femme fatale, Patrick the louche lothario, and Art the sensitive doormat they both walk all over. And despite some male backsides in a sauna scene, the film that seems to be preoccupied with sexual shenanigans shows precious little passion or even nudity. The most we see of the three getting hot and bothered after that original make-out scene is in all the sweat the two men drip profusely during their final “big match.” What a tease.

The story never really addresses the true, inner feelings of any of its characters. We’re shown that Tashi and Art have a young child, but we get precious little of their family life together for it to matter much. What Guadagnino seems to care about most is showing off all of his filmmaking tricks when it comes to the tennis court scenes. His camera is constantly in movement, employing one stylized angle after another from cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, enough super slow-motion to make Zack Snyder green with envy, and a big, throbbing score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Guadagnino makes every racket shot a crazed, hyper-kinetic exchange that makes the sport look like it’s all rockets blasting loudly from the baseline. The actors swing their rackets well and race all over the court but the tennis never feels particularly real. Much like the love stories at play.

O’Connor builds on the promise of his award-winning turn playing Prince Charles in THE CROWN, and he nails the American accent too. Faist is appropriately sympathetic, but we never quite see the champion that Art is supposed to be. And despite the game three leads giving it their all, their romantic triangle never quite moves the heart. Fitting, I suppose, since the term “love” stands for zero in tennis.

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