‘Champions’ Misses at the Free Throw Line

Although he's a national treasure, even Woody Harrelson can't transcend this schmaltzy plot


From There’s Something About Mary to The Ringer, The Farrelly Brothers have always been fascinated by people with physical or cognitive challenges. And even if those who suffer are the butt of the joke, there’s an underlying sweetness that belies any flagrant cruelty. In Champions, Bobby Farrelly’s solo directorial debut, he celebrates the verve and tenacity of kids with mental disabilities — with frustratingly mixed results. His heart is in the right place, but he’s so busy slathering on the schmaltz and making everyone feel fuzzy, he forgot to craft an engaging plot with memorable characters.

Based on the 2018 Spanish comedy hit Campeones, the always likable Woody Harrelson plays Marcus Markovich, a hapless assistant coach for a Des Moines minor league team. After getting fired for shoving his head coach (Ernie Hudson) during a game, Marcus goes on a bender before driving and smashing into a police car. For his penance, the judge sentences him to 90 days of community service which involves coaching the “Friends,” a group of mentally challenged basketball players who are practicing for the Special Olympics. With a template reminiscent of The Bad News Bears, Marcus initially bristles at the prospect of coaching this ragtag group of misfits. That is, before he learns to embrace them, and in doing so discovers the gentler, gooier part of himself. It’s a formula that’s worked in the past, but not this time.

At the gym, he’s met by Julio (Cheech Marin) who introduces him to the players, wonderfully portrayed by ten disabled actors (Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Casey Metcalfe, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, and Bradley Edens). All the kids play their parts to the hilt, injecting some verve into a screenplay that seems to be suffering from narcolepsy. These opening scenes should burst with awkward hilarity, or at least provide some insight into Marcus’ problematic character. Instead, Champions plays it safe by making Marcus so benign and obtuse you wonder what happened to the egomaniac we met in the opening. He’s so sweet and accepting of his new situation, the movie eradicates any possibility of self-discovery. If our protagonist isn’t going to learn anything about himself or the disabled community, how will we? Storywise, it’s a tactical error the movie never recovers from.

Other than the kids, the movie’s saving grace comes in the form of Alex, played by Kaitlin Olson (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Hacks), as the older sister to one of the players. After she and Marcus have a one-night stand, she unexpectedly reappears throwing his orbit into question (something has to). They swiftly fall into one of those relationships where they promise each other it’s purely physical even as it evolves into something more. Olson brings much-needed depth to a movie that’s running on fumes at this point. As someone who’s spent most of her life taking care of her brother, she sparkles in the moments when she’s forced to tap into feelings she’s protected for so long. Her awakening is the most authentic and interesting part of the story, which is curious since it’s a movie about a coach and his team, but never mind.

Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo made some very odd choices in their approach to this material. Most scenes feature sing-alongs, vomiting, and jokes about body odor, none of which is particularly funny or moves the story forward. There’s hardly any insight into how Marcus coaches the team or improves their abilities on the court, either. The narrative simply skips from game to game as they gain traction toward a championship. There’s also a superfluous side story in which another trainer, Sonny (Matt Cook), is so intent on being Marcus’ friend, he ends up as his assistant coach. In the time it took to insert these characters and endless montages (seriously, at times it’s like watching MTV), the filmmakers could’ve cultivated an interesting dynamic between Marcus and the kids, or at least with his latent ego.

It’s just a raucous party, which has its chuckle-inducing moments, but is ultimately bereft of anything heartfelt. Even with its brash veneer, Farrelly’s affection for the cast members and their love of life shines through and yes, the kids are great, and worth the price of admission, but you wish there was something more. Harrelson transcends the strict confines of his genial, blasé character with some quirky reactions, and whether working in drama or comedy, at this point we can safely attest that he’s an American treasure. If Farrelly held back on extolling his magnanimity and took a more objective approach to the story and main character, the end result would’ve been as brave as the kids it portrays.

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