Champions Review

Director: Bobby Farrelly

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin

The main issue with Bobby Farrelly’s Champions as I sit here writing this review, is that I am struggling to remember specific scenes or moments from it, and I only saw it a couple of days ago. As far as studio comedies go, it is as light and ineffectual as any you’re likely to see. Nothing about it is particularly bad, but its formula is very old fashioned and you can almost see the dust that has collected on it. Would you believe if I told you a down-on-his-luck basketball coach warms his curmudgeonly heart by helping a team of intellectually disabled youth get to the finals of the Special Olympics? Yeah, I would too.

Conceptually, this film (a remake of a 2018 Spanish film of the same name) definitely sparks interest since director Bobby Farrelly is at the helm. Farrelly, with his now Oscar-winning brother Peter, dominated the comedy scene in the 1990s with their patented outrageous humor in Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary. That last film is the one that might have some viewers on edge about the subject matter Bobby is tackling in Champions. To say that the depiction of Cameron Diaz’s intellectually disabled brother in that film now comes across as insensitive and offensive is an understatement. Now, 25 years later, Farrelly gets a chance at redemption.

Thankfully, I can say that the depictions of the team members in Champions are mostly respectful and charming. Most of the big, broad, almost pointing-and-laughing style humor from There’s Something About Mary has been thrown out, and we now have more realistic depictions of a handful of specific characters that we get to know and who are actually played by intellectually disabled actors which should have been the case all along.

Harrelson plays Marcus, an assistant minor-league basketball coach who dreams of a dream promotion taking him all the way to NBA coaching glory. As the film opens, he feels underseen and under-utilized by his head coach (Ernie Hudson) which leads to a skirmish that ultimately results in the loss of his job and a bender where Marcus drunkenly rear-ends a parked police car by accident. At his sentencing, the judge offers him an alternative to significant jail time: 90 days of community service coaching The Friends, a local community team of teenagers with intellectual disabilities and varying degrees of skill for the game. After a thorny introductory period, Marcus begins to enjoy his assignment and the team as they improve and progress to the point where they end up possibly having a shot at the Special Olympics.

The movie benefits greatly from the presence of Kaitlin Olson as Alex, who we first meet in the opening of the film as a Tinder one night stand for Marcus. Eventually, they are reconnected when he discovers she is the older sister and minder of Johnny, a member of The Friends with Down Syndrome and a funny, bombastic personality. Olson, who came to fame via her wild role as Sweet Dee on the long-running FX comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, brings a welcome energy to the picture. She has a biting and sarcastic tone that makes her a funny foil for Harrelson when they get their screwball comedy style banter going. However, she also projects a warmth and a sweetness that makes you inherently root for her. It ends up being a nice, welcome performance and a very smart piece of casting.

It is also nice to see Ernie Hudson again with a small but effective role as the coach who is simultaneously fed up with and rooting for Marcus and almost factors as a father-figure role. The part is underwritten but Hudson brings such gravitas to any part he plays that it automatically elevates his scenes because of how compelling he is. The young actors who play The Friends really do a tremendous job as well creating a believable team unit and each one basically nailing their specific moment that Farrelly gives them for comedy or pathos.

All of this is basically to say that Harrelson gets sort of left in the dust by Champions. It’s not that he’s bad at all, it’s just that the movie constantly surrounds him with better performances so you hardly even notice him. The only time Woody outshines his scene partner is a small subplot that is deadly and not funny featuring Matt Cook as an acquaintance with some possible NBA contacts. Nearly everything else is every other actor walking away with the movie.

Despite all of this, I believe some audiences will be somewhat charmed and amused by Champions. Its heart is essentially in the right place and it gets the most mileage possible out of what is just a tired old vehicle. For every moment that rings false and makes you kind of shrug, there is one that makes you smile a little bit. In that way, it would not be shocking to me if the film ended up being something of a modest hit at the box office. It has most of the attributes for that kind of commercial success, but I think it needed some fresher elements to really score.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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