Mucking with Movies: 'Challengers'

28 days ago

Jack Simon is a mogul coach and writer/director who enjoys eating food he can’t afford, traveling to places out of his budget, and creating art about skiing, eating, and traveling while broke. Check out his website jacksimonmakes.com to see his Jack’s Jitney travelogue series. You can email him at [email protected] for inquiries of any type.
Jack Simon/Courtesy photo

Director Luca Guadagino takes his second stab at dissecting homoeroticism in “Challengers,” the first one being “Call Me By Your Name” — a movie where a teenager falls in love with a man in his late 20s, and audiences just skipped over that fact because the cinematography was good. I sat in the theater watching that flick, feeling as if I was going to be dragged away into an unmarked white van for pointing out that we were watching a grown man sexually manipulate a child. 

I digress.

But in “Challengers,” Guadagino is picking at the same scabs, ones that ooze ugly with angst, insecurity, and jealousy. Here it results in a wildly uneven film with erratic directing that borders on incoherent and a needlessly-complicated, poorly done edit. He pulls at the threads just long enough to loosen them from the film’s tightly-wound core but not enough that they unravel with any meaning.

It is this coy toying that dooms the film, falling into a spiral where the same points are hit the same way again and again and again. Even at its best moments, when we meet the characters as their younger selves, the quick-fire bantering, the understanding of the inescapability of loving somebody who will never love you back, the film feels lifeless. It’s always just a movie, with no chance of losing itself in the art. Goal-oriented to a terrible fault, it is forced from place to place and time frame to time frame, devoid of the subjectivity of a director’s touch.

There’s a current trend of using time and place title card stamps in films, probably due to the heavy success and subsequent influence of the Marvel films that use them, and “Challengers” doesn’t escape it. I wish I had counted the number of times they are used, but I don’t think I could have counted them all with both hands and all of my toes. It reeks of studio meddling, a suit’s assumption that audiences are so dumb we could not possibly understand on our own that we are jumping around in time to gather exposition for the showdown tennis match between Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist). 

We are introduced to the match in a cold opening without credits or any fade-in, and the tennis is shot wonderfully where the drama and intensity are captured with a wide, so we can see the hits of racquet on ball all the way through its target. It’s the sort of authenticity that translates well into the universal language of film where even a nonfan of the sport can immediately get its beauty. 

I only wish that they had told the story chronologically. We get the start at the match, but then it brings us back to two weeks later and then two weeks before that, and then the film spins off into an umpteen amount of directions. This is a moment where straightforwardness would have been useful, where we can see the characters growing up and how the suffocating manner of mature clarity suppresses the superfluous joys of youth. It would have been positively devastating to know them as that first and then see them so jaded.

Tashi Donaldson (Zendaya) represents this idea the best of the main character trio. Zendaya is essentially playing two characters throughout the film, the before-the-injury Donaldson and the after-injury survivor who is stripped of her identity without prejudice or warning. Both characters have the same motivation, though: total control over the people surrounding her. The now infamous threesome scene, the memed picture of them on the bed together, is shot in a long take that builds and builds and builds tension until the payoff where the camera begins a slow zoom in on Donaldson. It shows plainly but effectively what her goal has always been.

Certainly not the worst film of the year, I’m pretty sure it won’t end up making my bottom five or even my bottom ten, but the one that will fill me with the most irrational age. That awful Eurotrash EDM song that kept being poorly mixed in is going to act as a sleeper agent that when heard will spurn me into a violent catatonic state that has me performing lobotomies with a pickax on any nearby humans. So exhausted by the tedious redundancy that all I could think of in the last thirty minutes was that I wanted to go home to play video games and message back Tinder matches. 

Critic Score: 4.7/10

Jack Simon is a mogul coach and writer/director who enjoys eating food he can’t afford, traveling to places out of his budget, and creating art about skiing, eating, and traveling while broke. Check out his website jacksimonmakes.com to see his Jack’s Jitney travelogue series. You can email him at [email protected] for inquiries of any type.

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