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‘Challengers’ serves up Zendaya in a sexy triangle where love means nothing

<i>Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in
Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. via CNN Newsource
Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in "Challengers."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — In tennis, “love” means nothing. Love also has little to do with “Challengers,” which uses the sport as the backdrop to serve up an elaborate, non-linear psychological triangle that proves twisty and enticing for much of the match, before double faulting by whiffing on the ending.

Seduction and sex are again at the heart of this film from “Call Me By Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino, who also throws in twists of fate, paths not taken and – in the case of the central character played by Zendaya – a burning desire to win and exercise control over those around her, exploring how that elite-athlete mentality bleeds into her personal life.

The framing device is a singles match between Art (“West Side Story’s” Mike Faist), a decorated superstar who might be nearing the end, at least in his mind, of his tournament-winning career; and Patrick (“The Crown’s” Josh O’Connor), who arrives at the off-the-beaten-track tournament where they end up facing off in a run-down car that, his finances being what they are, doubles as his hotel room.

Flashing back 13 years, we discover that the two were bosom pals as junior tennis players when they first set their eyes – springing out of their heads almost cartoon-like – on Tashi (Zendaya), a rising star whose game provokes as much lust from them as her striking looks.

Back in the present, Tashi is Art’s wife and coach, having lost her own career to a devastating knee injury. Yet it’s pretty obvious that she’s living through him – he addresses the point overtly, saying, “I’m playing for both of us” – which only makes how she wound up with him, as well as the outcome of Art and Patrick’s (very) protracted match, more intriguing.

While sexual tension plays a central role in the movie (and certainly the marketing of it), “Challengers” is as much about blurring the lines between sex and the seductive power of big-time sports, with winning and success as the ultimate aphrodisiac. Add to that the two boys/men being pretty transparent about what they want, Tashi remains a source of mystery, in part because of the unscheduled detour her career has been forced to take.

After his fine young cannibals romance “Bones and All,” Guadagnino, working from a script by playwright Justin Kuritzkes, occupies more conventional and commercial territory here, while doing all he can to sex up how he films the tennis sequences.

Despite the zooming angles and whizzing balls, there’s no escaping the sheer abundance of those scenes, especially for anyone who has never sat through an entire US Open or Wimbledon final. Even using the sport as a metaphor, “Challengers” might become a bit of a challenge for those who show up eager to see the principals sweat for different reasons.

Because she’s playing more complicated angles, Zendaya’s Tashi is the most interesting character as well as a source of frustration. Then again, the details regarding all three of the key figures stay somewhat vague thanks in part to the structure, though all are prone to the occasional racket-mangling tantrum.

While the build-up proves effective, the payoff simply feels too precious, in a way that’s particularly unsatisfying. That misstep doesn’t invalidate sitting through this otherwise neatly choreographed match, but in tennis terms, it’s the kind of unforced error that prevents Guadagnino’s latest film from ranking as an unqualified winner.

“Challengers” premieres April 26 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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