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Friday, June 21, 2024

Challengers and Andy Samberg’s 7 Days in Hell are weirdly similar

It sometimes seems surprising that tennis doesn’t inspire more movies. Its one-on-one gladiatorial clashes are inherently dramatic and psychological, while the devious scoring system means no match is ever lost until it’s lost. Nail-biting climaxes and last-minute turnarounds are baked into the design. On the other hand, the fast-moving, seesawing action is technically difficult to frame in a way that’s both exciting and legible — and that same scoring system might drastically confuse anyone who doesn’t follow the sport.

Or maybe there are only so many tennis stories to tell. It’s certainly true that after watching Challengers, the torrid, wildly entertaining new tennis melodrama starring Zendaya and directed by Call Me by Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, I was struck by some surprising similarities to an earlier film. Only this film isn’t a proper sports movie, or even a pseudo-serious bit of prestige pulp like Challengers. 7 Days in Hell is a profoundly silly 43-minute HBO mockumentary from 2015, starring The Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg and streaming on Hulu and Max.

It’s tough to prove my point without comprehensively spoiling either film. You should watch them both; they’re both lots of fun. Let’s just say that both feature a hotly contested, emotionally (and maybe sexually) charged match between rival male players that goes the distance — and far beyond. Both movies also feature varying degrees of hot threesome action; an absurdly extended, physically impossible rally at the net; and a certain gesture that takes things up a gear. And they both end in strikingly similar ways, even though the actual outcomes are very, very different.

Andy Samberg raises his arms in victory in a loud jacket in 7 Days in Hell

Image: HBO

Kit Harington wipes sweat from his face with a pained expression, wearing tennis gear in 7 Days in Hell

Image: HBO

Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Mike Faist), Patrick (Josh O’Connor)

Photo: Niko Tavernise/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Above: Andy Samberg and Kit Harington in 7 Days in Hell. Below: Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor in Challengers.

Perhaps the key to both films’ success is that they recognize that tennis, with its strange rituals, hourslong matches, hushed intensity, and soundtrack of echoing pops, grunts, and smacks, is actually pretty ridiculous. Guadagnino’s movie spends more than two hours edging along the border of high camp, urged along by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pounding gay-club score. 7 Days in Hell is an all-out parody; it has no such restraint, if restraint is the word.

7 Days in Hell spoofs an ESPN 30 for 30-style sports documentary. Its subject is the longest match in tennis history, a first-round clash at Wimbledon that lasted for seven days. The top seed is Charles Poole (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington), a tragically dim Brit carrying the nation’s hopes on his shoulders. The wild card is Aaron Williams (Samberg), a washed-up “bad boy of tennis” in the Andre Agassi mold who happens to be Venus and Serena Williams’ adoptive brother. (In one of many talking-head cameos from famous real-world tennis figures, Serena explains that her father, Richard, adopted a white boy off the streets and turned him into a tennis pro in a “reverse Blind Side.”) Aaron is on the comeback trail after killing a line umpire with a 176 mph serve in the 1990s.

7 Days in Hell’s prime target is the absurdly extended matches that the Grand Slam tournaments are known for — particularly Wimbledon, where rain often delays play into the next day, and tie breaks weren’t used in the final set until 2019, making endless matches theoretically possible. The movie delights in the absurdism and masochism of both playing and watching this sport, as rain, streakers, traffic accidents, conjuring tricks, and more conspire to imprison the two players and their audience in an agonizing weeklong death spiral.

The fun comes from 7 Days in Hell’s extremely broad, even crude, humor (you’re going to need to enjoy dick jokes — this is a Samberg joint, after all) mixed with its savage parody of both the tennis world and the sports-documentary format. The film’s best gag is a brilliantly sustained digression into the history of Swedish courtroom sketch art, delivered with completely straight faces by tennis legends John McEnroe and Chris Evert, as well as the film’s stacked cast of comic actors. It’s a sly satirization of the way docs can use celebrity and misappropriated expertise as a vehicle for all kinds of barely relevant, unexamined information.

Among those self-mocking talking heads, McEnroe is particularly good value throughout. (His best line delivery: “Aaron probably should have forfeited after killing a guy. But he didn’t, because he’s an asshole.” McEnroe remains undefeated at cursing.) David Copperfield also sends himself up beautifully. The pro performers are great, too, with Fred Armisen as All England Club chairman Edward Pudding, MCU veteran Karen Gillan as Charles Poole’s supermodel ex-girlfriend, Mary Steenburgen as his overbearing mother, Lena Dunham as a fashion CEO, and an unforgettable turn from Michael Sheen as Caspian Wint, a pervy, chain-smoking British sports broadcaster. The smooth narration comes from Jon Hamm.

Before things come to a head on day seven of the match, the two players hold a joint press conference. A dispute starts, and they square up against each other, hurling insults, in an argument that briefly turns into a confused, thwarted embrace. Fundamentally, 7 Days in Hell and Challengers are saying the same two things. One: Sport may be about competition and dominance, but it’s a thin line between dominance and desire. And two: Tennis is absurd.

7 Days in Hell is streaming on Max, Hulu, and YouTube (with a subscription) and can be rented on Apple TV, Google Play, and other digital platforms.

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