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Three tennis players can't seem to quit each other in 'Challengers'


Zendaya has been referring to her new love triangle film, "Challengers," as "Codependency: The Movie." That may not be a great advertising line, but "Challengers" is about three tennis players who can't seem to quit each other. And critic Bob Mondello says audiences won't want to quit them either.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: This will sound like a backhanded compliment, but I'm kind of glad "Challengers" is a tennis movie that's not really about tennis. My dad used to watch matches on TV, and I never got it. If they'd been like "Challengers," I'd have gotten it.


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) You think that tennis is about expressing yourself, doing your thing. You don't know what tennis is.

JOSH OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) What is it?

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) It's a relationship.

MONDELLO: Actually, Tashi's hedging. It's sex. "Challengers" has conversations that feel like tennis, volleying back and forth, and the film's timeline bounces around like a tennis ball. But on the court, the action is specifically sensual, sweaty, feverish, passionate and explosive to a fault.


MIKE FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) You were incredible today.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) Thank you.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) I mean, it wasn't even like tennis. It was an entirely different case.

MONDELLO: That's Art, one of two best-bud tennis players who are Tashi-smitten from the moment they set eyes on her in college. The other is Patrick.


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) I should go. My dad comes looking for me. I'll see you at school, Art.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Wait, are you on Facebook?

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) What?

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) He's asking for your number. And so am I.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) You both want my number.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) Very much so, yeah.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Yeah.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) OK. Well, I'm not a homewrecker.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) We don't live together.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) It's an open relationship.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Also, Patrick has a girlfriend.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) I do not. Hey, come hang out with us later.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) Good night.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) We have beer.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) OK.

MONDELLO: It was a long shot, and they assume it's failed. But a bit later...


MONDELLO: ...They're suddenly doing frantic room cleaning...


FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Hi.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) Hey.

MONDELLO: ...And then making small talk that turns to more revealing talk.


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) How often does this happen - going after the same girl?

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) Not as often as you think.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) We usually have different types.

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) So you're saying I should be flattered.

OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) Aren't you everybody's type?

MONDELLO: And at some point, Tashi realizes she's wielding the power here, so she sits on the bed and says...


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) Come here.

FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Which one of us?

MONDELLO: And when both of them leap to her side, she starts a three-way makeout session that leaves the guys seriously confused and overstimulated.


RIHANNA: (Singing) Sex in the air, I don't care. I love the smell of it.

MONDELLO: And knowing that Tashi will only give her number to whoever wins their match the next day, ground rules set for all the competitions that follow over the next 13 years.


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) You can beat him.

MONDELLO: And there's lots.


FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) What if I don't? How are you going to look at me if I still can't beat Patrick Zweig?

ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) Just like this.

MONDELLO: The film bounces these three from collegiate innocence to mid-life meltdown and back again, with Zendaya's sexy, insinuating Tashi ever the puppet master.


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) I'm taking such good care of my little white boys.

MONDELLO: "West Side Story's" Mike Faist plays a back-court game as Art, always strategizing.


FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) This is a game about winning the points that matter.

MONDELLO: "The Crown's" Josh O'Connor makes Patrick a randy, full-of-himself bad boy.


OCONNOR: (As Patrick Zweig) It's nice to see you lit up about something, even if it's my girlfriend.

MONDELLO: And director Luca Guadagnino choreographs both their athletic and their off-court contest to a throbbing Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score that seems hellbent on doing for tennis pros what "Top Gun" did for fighter pilots.


MONDELLO: Which brings us back to sex because these three tennis-besotted kids are passionate about each other and about competition, and they express that passion on clay chords with carnal grunts of exertion and climactic groans of pleasure.


FAIST: (As Art Donaldson) Hey, I love you.

MONDELLO: Whereas off court...


ZENDAYA: (As Tashi Donaldson) I know.

MONDELLO: ...At one point, during actual lovemaking, Tashi is asked whether her erotic chatter is about her partner's performance in bed or on the court. And it's no surprise at all when she says, we're always talking about tennis. For her, anything less than erotically charged, endorphin-releasing, life-altering tennis just isn't worth the effort. And that's no less true for filmaker Guadagnino and "Challengers."

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.