'Champions' review: Well intentioned comedy misses its shot
Courtesy of Focus Features
An easy movie to root for, but shortsighted in its approach to the material, Bobby Farrelly’s well intentioned though stifled sports comedy “Champions” tries to remind audiences about our own perceived behaviors around people with learning or developmental disabilities. As if we didn’t know how cruel it is to objectify special needs folks with the R-word, “Champions,” wants to pat itself on the back for teaching its naive main character (played by Woody Harrelson) the errors of his ways. It should work, but Farrelly, one half of the Farrelly brothers responsible for such hits as “Dumb & Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary,” and “Me, Myself & Irene,” can’t resist peppering “Champions” with projectile vomiting, various bodily fluids and the occasional fart joke, diluting any goodwill garnered from its young and diverse cast.
Formulaic as it is manipulative, “Champions” follows disgraced NBA coach Marcus (Harrelson) who, after getting charged with a DUI, is sentenced to community service at the local rec center, overseeing the Friends basketball squad, a team whose players have intellectual challenges. Based on the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones,” this iteration sticks to the cliches that defines every inspirational sports flick where, at first, Marcus is disgruntled and displaced before warming up to the crew after getting to know them. And it’s not hard to like this team: the cast playing the Friends - Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Casey Metcalf, Bradley Edne - are great performers with whip smart comedic timing and gooey compassion you could wrap up in a blanket.
It’s nice the screenplay gives each of them a moment to shine and understand their lives, but you can’t help and feel it’s at their own expense. They’re only used to make sure Marcus views them as real people, yet anyone with a brain should know this, but it’s baked into the movie because there must be a redemption arc so that by the end, when Marcus understands it’s no longer cool to casually drop the R word, it shows he’s been transformed. Gimme a break!
But the movie doesn’t seem to care so much about the Friends as their entire personality is built around the goal of making it to the Special Olympics North American Regional Championship in Winnipeg. Not to mention, a final inspirational speech where Marcus tells the group they’re already champions because of the ignorance they’ve constantly endured, misses the basket by a mile. Again, this movie isn’t interested in treating these characters like genuine people, it needs them for plot development and easy laughs (full disclosure: when someone says: “I’m your homie with the extra chromie” I did chuckle) which is a massive musculation. Even the initial end credit roll neglects to include them!
Elsewhere, Kailtin Olson is sweet and charming playing Alex, a traveling Shakespearean performer who has a fling with Marcus and who’s brother Kevin is on the Friends squad. Meanwhile, Harrleson, the self anointed basketball performer thanks to movies “Semi Pro” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” seems dazed and confused by the whole ordeal.
Cheesy sports movies are a staple of healthy cinematic diets that, when done well, can elevate it beyond the the limitations of its genre, and despite “Champions” best efforts to subvert those expectations, it’s still a few baskets short of a slam dunk.
CHAMPIONS is now playing in theaters.