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Box Office: "Challengers" Scores a Grand Slam for Zendaya


Zendaya makes a solid case for grown-up roles with Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers.” The eagerly awaited sports comedy was supposed to premiere in 2023 at the Venice Film Festival opening night, but Hollywood's mega strike derailed the plan. With the stars verboten from walking the red carpet, MGM vacated the prime spot at one of the top festivals and scrammed its Oscar campaign plans - Venice upgraded Paolo Sorrentino's "Io Capitano" into place. Everybody won. The substitute scored an Oscar nomination for Best International Film, and "Challengers" is thriving. The combination of romance and sports feels better suited for Spring. With a little luck, it can play into the summer.

1. Challengers: $15 million

MGM's gambit of footing the bill for an adult-oriented romantic comedy paid off. “Challengers” topped the box office for the weekend of April 26 to 29, raking up $15 million in domestic ticket sales, plus another $10 million in foreign sales. The numbers put it well on its way to recouping its $55 million budget.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the decisive factor for success was. The most salient is Zendaya, the wildly popular young actress making a play for grown-up roles. Yes, the HBO series “Euphoria” let her explore heady themes, but it was, at heart, a teen drama with aspirations of edginess. Anticipation increased when the studio shelved the movie while the guilds and the studio resolved the strike. Last but not least, you can't minimize the impact of prurient interest. The gist of the promotional campaign is that “Challengers” is bringing “sexy” back. 

The movie follows the power plays of a love triangle among tennis players: Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is an ascending star, a black woman on the verge of revolutionizing the face. Best friends Art Donaldson (Mike Feist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) compete for her attention when they are not facing each other on the court. As they ponder the trajectory of their careers on the verge of turning pro, they get together in a seedy hotel room for a three-way make-out session with homoerotic undertones, or rather, tones. It is text, not subtext. The trio locks lips in a hungry, polyamorous kiss. Tashi leans back and looks approvingly as the boys do some tongue wrestling. “I’m not a home wrecker,” she says saucily moments later when she leaves the room.

Director Luca Guadagnino, working with a script by Justin Kuritzkes, revives the corpse of a genre abandoned to rot by Hollywood: the sex comedy. The movie is not as daring as it thinks, but it’s frankly audacious in the way it goes against prudish public discourse. Social media voices decrying sex in movies may be few, but they sure make a racket. You would think the movie theaters are full of porn. Why they complain so much is anybody’s guess. The infantilization of American cinema via the dictatorship of superhero stories has already neutered desire on film. “Everyone is beautiful, and no one is horny,” wrote RS Benedict in his damning essay published on Blood Knife.

Hold my beer, says Guadagnino. “Challengers” breaks the doldrums not by exposing flesh - although there is plenty of nudity -but by recognizing sex as a factor in the power dynamics of relationships between human beings. It vibrates in love and friendship; it percolates through self-realization and the search for success - or the passive renunciation of it. A gnarly injury ends Tashi’s career prematurely. Arthur pulls some Iago moves to push Patrick out of the way and score a marriage with her. The years pass, and they become the sport’s golden couple. She coaches him and oversees a profitable sponsorship couple. Patrick self-sabotages himself. He sleeps in his car and scrapes the bottom of the barrel playing in country club tournaments. The former friends, now foes, face down in one of those. Art is trying to regain his confidence in the rundown to the US Open. Patrick is playing for basic survival. On the bleachers, the mere presence of Tashi ups the stakes. 

The movie jumps back and forth in time, not to obfuscate but to illuminate how power pivots in the three-way relationship. The three leads are aces, with O’Connor stealing the movie with the most compelling arc. The killer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross sometimes drowns out the dialogue, but that’s not a major problem. The whole plot is in the performers’ eyes and bodies. Hollywood studios should be putting out a movie like this every month.

2. Unsung Hero: $7 million

Lionsgate keeps going to the well of faith-inspired films with this drama, based on a real-life story. An Australian family begins a new life in the US after father David Smallbone (Joel Smallbone) runs his music production company into the ground. Precariously established in Nashville, the family struggles as their kids strive to create a Christian music band. As you can imagine, their belief in Jesus propels them to success as they spread the word across the land.

If we learned something from 2023’s sleeper hit “Sound of Freedom” is that the pious want to go to the movies, too - specially if they reaffirm their brand of religious belief -. With the Smallbone’s grown-up kids behind and in front of the camera, reenacting their parents’ journey, the movie has an irresistible promotional hook. The movie took second place at the box office, earning $7 million. The budget was $6 million, so it’s already in the black. Even if it goes down the scale in the upcoming weeks, it got bragging rights as a hit. Hallelujah! 

3. Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire: $7.2 million

The two colossal monsters closer to our hearts - sorry, Ghidora - held on to the third place with $7.2 million, adding up to a run of $181.6 million in domestic ticket sales. The pile of money grows to the creatures' scale when you add the tribute of foreign audiences. Global box office currently stands at $519 million. With numbers like that, I’m guessing we will not avoid a sequel. 

4. Civil War: $7 million

Alex Garland’s speculative war drama dropped three spots in its third week, from first to fourth place. Seven million dollars brought the total tally for its three-week run to $56. 1 million. A24 is making a mint off America's undoing - the make-believe undoing.

5. Abigail: $5.2 million

The bloodsucking ballerina flashed her fangs and remained in the top five with $5.2 million for a two-week total of $18.7. That's not bad, but it's not enough to justify the announcement of a sequel this early. The international box office will determine if she gets a second act.

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